“I can meet you at the airport,” he told her. “Pick you up. I could make a sign and write your name on it.”
“You’re adorable,” she said, and he thought about how different her voice sounded after being absent from his hearing for even three months. There was a new depth to it he could not exactly define, a vaguely melodic quality, as if her voice were an instrument and she were a musician jubilant at finally discovering the subtleties of her skill. A song he had forgotten. At this thought he squinted involuntarily, confused at the single, unexplained sentence, and unable to say from what depths in his mind it had risen. He brushed at his face as if shooing something away, and cleared his throat before he realized that she had been talking.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” he asked.
“Off somewhere again, I take it,” she said.
Red heat at his cheeks; he felt himself sweating. Her attention warmed and cooled him at once, like a winter sun. “Yeah, maybe,” he said.
“I am so surprised,” she said, and there was a bright humor to her voice that lifted him. “But don’t worry about it – tomorrow, I mean. Mom and Dad are going to come and meet me. Why don’t I call you back?”
“Sure,” he said. He smiled reflexively into the phone for a moment, at this statement painted as a question, before remembering she could not see him, and he let it fade from his lips. She told him that she had to run, had to finish packing, and they said goodbye and hung up. He went to the kitchen, found a Corona in the fridge, and drank it in the living room. He turned the television on but muted the sound, and he let the flashing screen lull him into reminiscence; things they had done and places that they had been together. Moments. The list he came up with was short, and so he sipped his beer and imagined the things that she had done during her first semester, the things she was doing instead of talking to him, the way she looked, somewhere in a room, folding clothes that he had not seen over the crook of one thin, tanned arm.
He finished the Corona and got himself another. He stretched out on the couch with his feet up and watched the silent television in the intermittent dark of the living room, and he hummed a wordless soundtrack to sitcom reruns and drinking beer until sleep took him. When he woke the sun had risen in the windows and a morning show was on; the hosts in suits smiled and laughed, their eyes darting back and forth to follow teleprompters just offscreen, and he could see their mouths moving but he could not tell what it was they were saying. He got up and went to work.
At work he found himself stranded halfway between focus and distraction; Allison was everywhere. She walked ahead of him through the parking lot, the feel of her hips suddenly vivid on his fingertips. Her face drifted in the coat closet, suspended, and then grew downward into the shape of her that he remembered, as if he were drawing, and her hair draped around ghostly shoulders like smoke between the shirtsleeves. She was there, by the lathe, and he flinched at the feeling of an admonition on his lips, a recommendation that she, immaterial as she was, should put on a damned hard hat before she went and hurt herself.
She would laugh at that thought, he knew, and he remembered the way she laughed, the high lilt punctuated by a smile and a sigh that sounded like happiness colored by vague pity, as if her heart burst anew each time he said something foolish. It had been this way from the beginning, him the one who worried and her the one who laughed; him befuddled and caught off-guard by her attention, her presence, and Allison the one who understood what was between them all along.
At lunch he slipped away from the rest of the men driving off in groups of three or four to buy sandwiches or drink beer at Gary’s, and sat in the employee lounge, with its stink of stale cigarettes and sweat, and he watched the television mounted high on the wall. He flipped through channels and saw her there, again, traipsing through thigh-high tropical undergrowth, grinning at the camera and gesturing with mock fear at her bare-chested guide and the glint of his machete in the sunlight. Then, suddenly, she was replaced by herself clad in a black robe, at first resting her cheek on one upturned fist and then jumping, with wide eyes, at the sound of her own gavel.
He changed the channel again and there were kids around his age, surely not too much younger, and the camera whipped around a darkened gymnasium at breakneck speed, barely long enough to make out the way they danced, the way couples pressed together as if for air. Silver ties intermingled in motion with gowns deep red as if alive with blood; sleeves rolled up to the crease of muscled forearms, a dress cut dangerous and low into the valley of a cream-colored lower back. He knew these things because he watched the television in the lounge, and yet he knew this because suddenly he was there, again, where they met.
He could not remember talking to her in school, not once; nor could he recall a time before now when even their eyes had met, and so for a panicked moment he imagined that this night amounted to her first day of school. Perhaps she was not even enrolled; his mind flickered over the idea that she was not a student at all, but instead some beautiful transient, some wanderer, or perhaps, in what seemed the most likely possibility, she had simply appeared in the midst of the crowd, born of friction and pheromones.
An elbow nudged his ribs. “Hey,” a friend muttered at his ear. He nodded slightly towards the dance floor. “Flashing you the fuck me eyes over there.”
“Oh boy,” he said, imagining Liza, and, briefly, the ease with which he could convince her to leave this place with him right now if he wished. He wondered if she would complain about the smell of his breath, and then decided that she almost certainly would. He felt a minor twinge of nausea, and could not decide if it was the booze or the idea of spending the night with Liza again.
He looked and at first saw only the crowd, the indistinguishable mass swaying, shouting. And then, surveying the backs and shoulders of people he knew, he saw her; saw her eyes fleetingly as blue flame, glimpsed them momentarily as if through tall grass.
The cement wall was cool at his back, but now he felt the weight of the flask in his pocket. He took it out and ducked behind the boys he stood with for a few swallows of whiskey. The liquor burned in his throat. He coughed, swiped one arm across his mouth, and felt warmth bloom in his chest. He stepped back out from behind his friends and was suddenly conscious of the silence that gripped the room; he looked around and saw people standing, whispering to each other, glancing over at the booth behind a wall of speakers where a man in sunglasses was now on his hands and knees, fiddling with wires.
“Cheap-ass DJ,” someone said.
His focus drifted back across the crowd as if scanning open ocean, and then a group of boys in rented suits drifted out of the way and revealed her, bird-like, brown-haired. He tried to think then of her name but heard pounding in his ears, heard and then imagined the ocean, and he stood mute in the murmuring silence and pictured storm clouds.
She was walking towards him. She wore a dress that hugged her figure like a second skin, and something fuller than a smile, something that encompassed not simply her lips, but the entire length of her. He imagined Liza’s smile, its sheen of vulnerability, and could not bring himself to compare the two for long.
“Allison,” she said.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m—”
“I know.” He felt heat, again, from her gaze, and he watched it slip downward, appraisingly, following the line of his jaw, then his tie, to rest in what he guessed was the neighborhood of his belt buckle. Or lower.
“What’s this?” she said, and pressed herself into him, nose and mouth and hot breath into the base of his throat and collarbone. He inhaled sharply and felt her hands at his waist, and then darting downwards, snaking into the pocket of his slacks. She pulled away. “May I?” she asked, holding up the flask, grinning.
“Sure,” he said.
She unscrewed the cap and deftly brought the flask to her lips. He allowed himself to let his eyes play over her while she drank; the bob of her throat, the neckline of her dress, the way the half-light of the gymnasium lit her body silver and blue, like the reflection of moonlight in water. She swallowed and made as if to hand him back the flask, then hesitated and pulled it back to her body, and she looked from the metal to him and back again.
“How did you get this?” she asked him, and he guessed her interest was less directed at where the whiskey came from and more at confirming something about him that she believed she already knew. He looked from left to right to see if his friends were listening.
“I look a little older than I am, I guess,” he said. “And I used to haul boxes for Parker in the mornings – when I was a kid. So I think he looks the other way, sometimes.”
She was drumming her fingers on the side of the flask in her hand, and he could not tell if she were impatient or simply playing along to some beat, though there was still no music but the waiting din of the crowd. A moment passed in which neither of them spoke, and Allison nodded slightly.
“You’re twenty-one?” she asked.
“Twenty. Three months, though,” he said, chuckling. “Can’t wait.”
“I bet,” she said, and she drank again and stepped towards him, oblivious of the crowd of people around her, some of whom stared openly. She replaced the cap, slipped the flask into his hands. She eyed him. “I’ve heard about you,” she said. He tried to hide the spark of pride her voice ignited in him. He looked somewhere else, feigned disinterest.
“Yeah? What’ve you heard?”
“Things,” she said, elongating the vowel, stretching meanings. He waited for further explanation but there was none, and she grinned in the quiet that rose anew between them.
“Well, that’s great,” he said. “It sounds like you’re really plugged into the pipeline around here.”
She laughed and looked at the floor, but too quickly, and he felt something small turn inside of him. He could not articulate his suspicion, though, and when Allison looked back up at him he felt a fresh wave of infatuation wash over him; he allowed himself to be immersed in it, to swim, and finally, to believe that the initial pang of hesitation he felt and this new helplessness were two corresponding sides of something he could not yet define.
“No, no,” she said. “I don’t know – I don’t know anything, really. I’ve just heard that you can get things.”
“I can get things,” he repeated.
“For people you like,” she said, and the tenor of her voice flexed and turned the statement into a question. He felt and then heard the speakers crackle to life, echoing in the gymnasium, and he looked over her shoulder for a moment at girls leading boys by the hand out into the glare of looping strobe lights, imagined pinning the focus of megawatt colored bulbs on whomever he chose from a spot removed and far above, hanging from the rafters. Then his hand was in hers and his exhilaration mixed with a tiny bite of shame at how clammy his hand must feel. He had not realized how tightly it had been wrapped around the flask in his pocket.
When work ended Allison still had not called, and so he drove to Gary’s with some of the men closest to his age. They waved at the waitress and piled into a corner booth, and the girl brought beer and two ashtrays for those who smoked. He put his watch and his phone in front of him on the table, and drank beer and made conversation. He talked less then usual and drank more than he meant to, and after an hour there was a soft, pleasant film to his consciousness and the gnawing sense that she would not call eased. He felt happily removed and somehow distant, as if his ears were plugged up, as if he were listening to a voice clamoring for his attention from the other side of a brick wall.
Hours passed and his phone stayed quiet. He drifted further into the haze of drunkenness and felt soothed by the drone of the music from the bar jukebox and the rhythms of conversation around him. The ache at the thought of her had dissipated, and the shadow of her absence no longer hung over him; now he thought of Allison in fits and starts that propelled him into another lit cigarette, another round for the table ordered on his tab. The phone went back into his pocket, the watch hooked back around his wrist and under his shirtsleeve.
After some time he could not remember exactly how long he had been in the booth with the other men, but it no longer seemed important; he felt compelled only to make sure that everyone’s cup was full and that the laughter, the noise among them flowed as freely as the pitchers of beer, slammed down on the wooden tabletop to slosh over the sides and down the glass into puddles. He slurped at beer that had pooled into a crack on the table, and someone laughed and clapped him hard on the back. Some women came to the bar, and he did not know them but they seemed to know him, and he laughed along with his friends from work, making eyes at each other, and they beckoned and the women came over and one of them sat on his lap, and everything was alright.
They talked for a while, but he caught only bits and pieces; she knew him from around town. She was saving money, she said, for something, and he missed most of what followed, but they laughed together when her husband called, a man that he also knew, and he pulled her closer in that moment and felt good. They went to the bathroom together for a time, and when they came out again she tripped over a table leg and went sprawling to the floor, red-faced, and he laughed and clapped one of the men on the back. He left Gary’s with the woman, and they drove to the apartment that she shared with someone whose name he did not catch.
In the morning he rolled out of her bed and walked to the bathroom. He pissed and his free hand went to his forehead; he imagined he could feel it pulse and enlarge, like a balloon overfilled. He remembered the front door of her apartment, her porch and a wooden, sagging swing set in her front yard, lit by the headlights of his truck. The memory ended there. He left the bathroom without flushing so as not to wake her, and stood in the doorway to the bedroom for a moment. She lay on her back, the white sheet draped at a diagonal angle across her body, one pearl-white breast exposed, the make-up smeared at her lips and caked around her eyes. He regarded her as shamefully, perversely exposed, and wished that he could wash her face so as to least remember her better. He looked at himself in the mirror on the inside of the bedroom door; tried to imagine how he had looked like to her in the failing light, what she had seen there – what anyone could see.
He dressed in the hallway, stealing looks back at her, and then he went outside as quietly as he could. He started the truck and drove away, and did not look at the shrinking image of her apartment in his rear-view mirror, and would not allow himself even to glance at the name printed on the side of the mailbox as he passed.
Allison’s graduation was long assured by the time their relationship began; she had won early admission to Cornell several months before, and so by the time they started missing school regularly in the last weeks of the school year it scarcely mattered. Her parents were irrevocably won by the acceptance letter, and his parents generally accepted in silence that his educational career was fated to end sooner than later. Their obstacles were limited to what they deemed to fit into their days, and they blew through weeks as if they were bits of flowers scattered to the wind.
Some days they slept until the afternoon, always in the bed at his house, talking or watching television or eating or sometimes making love. They stayed there until they could think of somewhere to go, or until they heard the late morning freighter cars rumble over the tracks nearby.
Some days they sat on the railroad bridge over the water and threw rocks in the white water, watched them disappear into nothing, swept away downstream. They stuffed cans of beer into the pockets of his backpack and brought it along with them. They swam, he in boxer shorts and she in underwear and her bra, their clothes folded on rocks by the riverside, and he tossed her into the water when she refused to allow her hair to get wet. They sat on boulders in afternoon sun and he draped a towel around her shoulders, and he tried to convince himself that her smile in those moments was not colored by some faint pity; that she was struck by nothing more than his chivalry.
They laid on a hill that overlooked the graveyard, and, further, the road, and in the afternoons they watched the buses filled with people they knew and soon would no longer know trundle by; her head on his lap, she blew dandelions to the air and he whistled aimlessly through pinched blades of grass until their high wore off. One day he said her name out loud with his last name attached to it just to try out the sound of it, and she rolled off of him and sat up. She cocked her head to one side.
“What’d you just say?”
“What? I didn’t say anything. I cleared my throat a little a second ago.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You just put our names together. I heard you.”
He laid back and crossed his hands behind his head. “Man, I think you’re hearing things. No more for you, sweetheart.” He heard her exhale a breath and could imagine her now – serious, lips pursed. He knew her eyes were still on him, and he feigned a yawn and stretched, hoping that the moment would pass, but knowing somewhere within himself that it would not.
“Brian,” she said. His name on her lips carried a sudden new weight that made him uncomfortable, and he turned over on one side to face away from her. He changed his mind and thought briefly of offering her another joint to preserve her mood. “Brian,” she said again. “Hey. I don’t want to be a bitch. I just want to make sure we both know what this is.”
He heard the train again on the other side of town, and now wondered where it was going. He imagined railroad yards far from the hill, black and gray and gravel broken only by the color of graffiti, encircled for miles by chain-link fences sharp and rusted on top. He thought of factories, men with lunch boxes and hard hats, whistles with steam. Allison laid back down beside him and spoke into his back.
“I mean, I don’t love you,” she said, and the word sounded small next to her nervous laughter. “Obviously.”
He drove to his house and turned off the engine, but did not get out of the truck. He looked at the darkened windows and thought of a sleeping face, and could not tell at first whose it was. He tried to make it Allison’s face, tried to contort the vision in his mind to match his recollection of her features, but before long he gave up and the picture became him, asleep next to the woman from the bar in a bed that was not his. From this sprang a frustration so intense he felt compelled to run from it, because he could offer no answers, even internally, to himself, as to why he felt wrong somehow, as to why now, even in his daydreams a part of him believed that he was in the wrong place. He got out of the truck and went inside, slamming the front door harder than he meant to.
There were messages on the answering machine. There were two from friends in his graduating class, boys who were in town between semesters to see family and friends and wrap themselves in old times like a blanket around still-bony shoulders. One message mentioned a bonfire, and though he imagined he would know many of the people who might attend, he could not imagine those friends outside of the distance they had put between themselves and the place where he had ended up.
The next message was from his father, who tended to call either when he had been drinking or when he had forgotten the last time they had talked. He was surprised at the bitterness that colored his thoughts of his father; the man had never mistreated him, and he had wanted for nothing more in childhood than perhaps more attention or guidance, or simply an explanation as to where his mother had gone. Though he had been told the situation when he was a child, when she had left, he felt he had understood only later, and perhaps never really at all. He turned the words over in his mind now as if putting together a puzzle. Nevada. Trial separation. And, finally, the one which he did not trust: Love. He could not trust it though he heard it in telephone conversations, read it in her letters, even heard it muttered on the lips of his father late at night, nearly impossible to hear over his piling of crumpled aluminum cans in the kitchen sink. He could not trust it because he felt he did not know what it was, and especially not when it was diluted at all times by so much distance.
The answering machine beeped off, and Brian stood in his apartment, trying to decide what to do and why he could not conceive of anyone without imagining the space that time and circumstance had put between them. It seemed that everything, everyone he knew, now amounted to nothing more than a series of arrivals and departures, people who would linger in his life momentarily and then disappear to wherever fate had decided to take them, but not him. Never him.
He imagined the miles, the endless pavement that lay between where he was and where his mother had gone. Yellow lines stretched out before him into the horizon, and the sun beat down and mercilessly baked the tar, cracked it in places. Animal skeletons lay by the roadside. He had not spoken to her in months now.
He wondered if his father had thought of these same things on the nights Brian had heard him awake in the next room, talking softly to himself. Did he envision the long list of states, cities, and towns that his mother had felt compelled to cross through? Perhaps he thought of the people that she knew now that he did not, the unfamiliar faces crowding his imagination. His father of all people must know the paranoia that arrived with such thoughts – each night the mind could conjure up a procession of strangers, a criminal line-up, each man or woman a suspect, a party to a crime that Brian could not name and, likely, neither could they.
To make himself move, do something, he went to the kitchen and started rinsing some of the dishes. This seemed like a reasonable course of action; his hands, suddenly, were not clenching and unclenching reflexively but were holding plates and glasses under the steady stream of warm water, and he listened to the water running into the drain and felt a sense that at least here, he was accomplishing something. This had nothing to do with Allison, and this had nothing to do with dreaming about what was not, and what would never be, and what he had somehow, through some course of action he could not identify, lost forever.
Loss was what his father must have grappled with, too – the sense that he had through some internal flaw or fault misplaced something vital, without which he could not be made whole again. He was a strong man, but a simple one, and he had been tortured by an inability to understand what he had done wrong, as if the affection of Brian’s mother was simply a part he had installed incorrectly, something he could rectify if only he could recall where he had gone wrong. Brian suddenly found himself newly furious, not only at his father’s stubborn insistence to confess what troubled him only to the silence of the night when he believed his son slept, but at the sense, swelling within himself, that somehow he was now helpless to repeat his father’s mistakes, whatever they were.
“What did I do wrong?” he said to the apartment, and when no one answered he remembered that he was alone, and felt compelled to look out the kitchen window, as if perhaps someone were standing in the driveway, waiting for him. There was no one there, only the truck, but the sky was new, pink at the line of the horizon, a new day approaching.
He wiped his hands on his pants and grabbed the keys off of the counter and trotted out the front door, filled with something that might have been fear or a new sense of purpose. Brian did not care what it was, did not care to know, so long as it continued propelling him through his reluctance and out the door, and to the truck, and to Allison’s house.
He pulled into her driveway and remembered times that he had picked her up or dropped her off at this spot. Her wave to him in the amber outside light. There were cars in the driveway, now, and he wondered if it was parents or relatives or friends; he could not imagine any would be excited to see that he arrived, but felt emboldened by freshly remembered wounds and a sick sense of desperation that hammered his stomach and drove him forward. He parked, got out, and knocked on her door.
Suddenly, as he waited, it dawned on him anew that he had never met her parents. He swallowed a lump of terror and then looked at the old man who answered the door. He seemed bemused to see him; as if people Brian’s age were a novelty he rarely was allowed to enjoy.
“Hello?” the old man asked.
“Hello,” Brian said. His hands went halfway out to his sides and then forward, sheepishly indicating an area just behind the old man, as if he were directing a plane about to land. “I’m – I’m here for Allison.”
The old man’s mouth turned upward in the beginnings of a smile that would have in other circumstances seemed kind. He imagined that this man, who must be Allison’s father, had heard all about him in an unflattering way, and as such he inwardly assigned his smirk a certain insidiousness, the sign of an entire family who now jeered him at gatherings and parties. He heard someone from inside call out and ask who was at the door. The old man turned to one side and called out.
“Uh, one of Allison’s friends is here – I’m sorry, son. I didn’t catch your name.”
He began to answer when she appeared at the old man’s side, and he was startled into silence by how new she looked. Her features familiar but so long absent that their very reality reminded him of how far away they had been, as if a place he had once visited but now knew only from photographs that had long since lost their color.
“Brian,” she said. She put one hand on her father’s side. “Could we have a second, Dad?”
“Sure,” he said. He put out his hand and Brian shook it. “Pleasure to meet you, son. I’ll be in the living room,” he said.
Allison listened to him leave with her eyes downturned, and after a moment she brought her gaze up to meet his, but it was with an intensity and focus he had never felt before, and he was struck by the sudden sense of confronting someone whom he no longer recognized.
“Brian,” she said again, and it was as if she were wishing him away with each utterance of his name. “What’s going on?”
“Hey,” he said. Even the greeting came out meekly. “Can we maybe go some place and catch up?”
Her lips parted slightly and she seemed to search his face for something she had expected to see. She looked as if she were trying to grasp the language he spoke. He felt foreign, unwelcome. She glanced again over one shoulder, and stepped out on the front stoop, pulling the front door quietly shut behind her. She hugged her arms around her chest.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. He no longer knew. His certainty had evaporated around him like morning fog.
“What are you talking about? You said you would call, Allison.”
She sighed. “I know what I – Brian. You can’t just come here. Jesus, my parents are here.”
He heard how she made him sound now and anger flared. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I can’t know your parents?”
She took a step towards him and her voice dropped into a harsh whisper that he had never heard. “What is it you want to do? You want to go get high and watch trains go by? What did you think would happen? Just showing up here,” she said, and chuckled incredulously. “And Jesus, have you been drinking?”
He looked down and his hands went in his pockets. She shook her head sadly.
“Listen, we were just having fun,” she said, and he felt worse for the frustration she no longer hid, the sense that Allison had come home knowing she would likely be forced to confront him. She spoke to him as if he were a chore that she had put off. “Things have changed.”
“I see that,” he said.
“We can still be friends,” she said. “But I’ve moved on. It’s been too long.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I mean, three or four months now,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, and felt it. “I know what you mean.”
He drove home and sat in the kitchen and smoked a cigarette, trying to decide for a time if he wanted something to eat or something to drink or just to sleep. It would be good to try and nap, to sleep off the effects of the hangover that he still felt. He took a handful of saltines into his room and ate them in bed. He brushed the crumbs from his chest onto the floor and turned off the light, tried to sleep.
Later in the night he sat up in bed, sweat in rivulets down the small of his back and beaded on his forehead, and he stayed still for a long time, listening to the sound of his own breath in the empty room and for a time trying to remember where he was. Eventually things came to him and his eyes adjusted to the dark, and he saw the chair in one corner of the room where clothes were strewn, the end table beside it with the ashtray, the bureau by the window.
He got up and went to the window in his boxer shorts and undershirt and looked outside. He watched a few cars pass in the night, their brake lights fading in the distance, and though it was on the other side of town now, he imagined that he could see the lights of a passing freight train, bound for parts far away from this town and the things that he knew. He leaned against the window sill and listened to the night sounds outside; the street lamp on the sidewalk buzzing.
He got back into bed and sat in the dark, struggling to take hold of a memory seemingly just out of his grasp. He knew in an indefinable way that he had been awakened by some dream, some vivid recollection whose presence could put words or an image to what he felt now. Eventually, he lay on his back beneath the sheet and tried to sleep, but he found himself unable to drift off, unable to let go of the fleeting dream, whatever it was that he no longer had, and try as he might, he could not remember. He could not remember anything at all.
Kenneth Gagnon is a writer from New Hampshire.