Her birthday was two days and a couple years before mine, Lit majors both. She smoked and had sharp, bird-like features and skinny arms and legs like a too-tall little girl and a tattoo of an orca in the style of the art of Pacific Northwest Native Americans on the back of her right shoulder and there was a story to that which I don’t remember and we drank together for several nights before she grabbed my shirt and kissed me as she was leaving the pub in the center of town and said “I’ll see you later” like it was an order and no, of course we didn’t fall in love, not at all, nowhere close, but we did catch a whiff of something that smelled like it when the wind blew just right. Or just about, and that’s the only reason to talk tell say a single thing about it now. It’s dangerous stuff, those amorous gusts, and breathing them in is like huffing paint thinner—feels great for a bit but really fucks you up after a while.
How were we supposed to know? How was I? All I did was open the door, all she did was walk through, no? Two impure and dull-haloed innocents, star-crossed wanderers in search of shelter and understanding, like in all the movies, ever, even before we had them (the movies), and just as bad. The unlikely encounter, the twisted fates, the unexpected commonalities of temperament and circumstance and dreams and astrological signs and university majors and food allergies and dream cycles who knows what, nudged by the proverbial universe that somehow magically brought us there, our impossibly distinct and different paths crossing with impossible distinctness as if they simply had to. She from ______, living in ______. Me from _______, and living there. Both abroad, studying for a bit across the pond, and all we did was inhale, nice and deep.
And then it was over. The end.
Kidding, kidding, but I’m really not. Anyway, “over” is an awfully big four-letter word for something that lasted, if it can even be called a something—and here I go diminishing it and filing it down to a nub so it won’t stick out like the sore thumb it used to be for guilty me—only a handful of in-person days, starting as company-keeping, thought-sharing, emotion-orbiting, and not culminating in much of anything at all till the second-to-last night, the night of the shirt grab kiss and find me order. With that move, what should’ve been a goodbye good night was turned into an eye-locked later and yes come find me and yes she did and yes I left the door open and yes I mean that literally. Because that’s what I do. I leave the door open, and things walk in, right in do they wander.
And what wander walked in that night was just an aspect of love, minorly, love’s apparition, lingering around as though the real living breathing thing might’ve been there and ended there some appropriately tragic time way back when, a dream-memory-myth sequence it seemed we were determined to dramaturgically replicate, as fated as we were to fall and fall apart from a together that never was and never could ever have been. So I let it in, and let her in just a little, not so much against my better judgment but without any speakable judgment at all, wholly and utterly beside the moment that was nevertheless all around me and in me, a strange sensation that I don’t think I’ve ever fully felt since.
Our parting a day later was appropriately unceremonious, all bleary-eyed psychodrama and some secret relief in me as she left and I stayed behind with time—plenty, too much, perhaps—to reflect and justify and idolize a feeling I hadn’t felt so much because of someone but merely around and only in nibbleable bits.
Maybe there, maybe that’s where I say “the end” and maybe I should, but I think about it sometimes, about her, about how we grabbed at an insignificant shred of time, a shred of a shred, ardent, dismayed souls sharing that shred in a place unfamiliar and wholly new to both and therefore perfect to find and feed two small spheres of solace, as aimless and fragile as soap bubbles. We just stuck together for a little while, then burst. Because that’s how those things go, life to life, place to place, time to time. No plans, no designs, no expectations, only a handful of hang-ups and a moment, and that moment closed in on us comfortably, swiftly, not so much bringing two together as allowing each to feel less alone and more alike in their necessary disunity, wool-eyed and wrapped.
I think of that and it makes me think of the evening conversations and beer glasses like hourglasses marking steady passages and unsteady legs, of sitting in the tiny, low-ceilinged closet-of-a-pub down a wide half-flight of stone stairs from the foyer of the dining hall where we ate our free suppers and sitting there on an evening when she’d been spurned by her little clique of acquaintances and just happened to attach herself to me instead and talked all around and over and under the fact that she was deeply hurt like a little big girl by their juvenile betrayal as they cattily gabbed about her at a table by the windowed wall and she went on talking about how she’d been looking out for them, having their best interests in mind, or something semi-tragic like that, playing the full-on role of drama mother goose to unappreciative, spoiled children, a motif of hers, as it turned out. That was our first real conversation and I don’t remember a single specific word we shared—probably a lot or ands and thes and likes—just that they’d been mostly eager, angsty, commiserative, plainly and honestly curious words for the sake of opening that curiosity up and looking inside and going hm, the kind of early initial conversation that’s more like painting than like talk when even lies by omission are kind of pretty.
And I think of the middle-aged, grey stubble-headed round man sitting at the bar with his middle-aged, grey stubble-headed chums of differing shapes and sizes who kept staring at the other tattoo, one of her others, the one on her lower back, exposed from beneath her small girl’s shirt as she leaned forward on a stool next to me at a bar-height roundy for two in a pub to which we never returned and only tried in the first place because it was a little out of the way like we were trying to be.
And I think of waking up next to her fully clothed on that single bed after that single night and seeing her makeup smears on the single pillow we’d shared and standing up and backing away like I was my own soul departing from my body and surveying the scene with a sobering pounder of a headache and wondering what I’d just done and how I’d get out of it and thanking my lucky stars in a brief moment of clarity that she was leaving the next day.
And I think of the horrendously lovey, weltschmerzy shit I wrote to and about her, clarity transformed, letters drafted and crafted in that blue spiral notebook which was for all intents and purposes my first journal and idea/thought/bullshit log, drinking alone in my room at night and watching stars, both shooting and stationary, from the terrace or coming back to room and terrace in various states of inebriation over the course of the ensuing two weeks following her departure, weeks spent with a motley crew of other travelers and one native, a fine bunch of age- and globe-ranging cannibals who welcomed me into their welcome wings right when I most needed it and with whom I had some of the best times of my life, smoking hash on a park bench after the pubs had closed for the night with that obnoxious American who thought he was a Spaniard and was a good ten years older than most of us before ditching him to return with my little band to our headquarters at Clare to drink whiskey and talk about who we were and where we came from and occasionally discuss occasional things like medieval manuscript marginalia with our German member.
And I think of leaving those headquarters under the cover of full but lucid hash-driven intoxication and considering scaling the stone perimeter to go the back way by the library instead of all the way out to Queen’s because I was probably tall enough to reach but scratching that notion in favor of making the trek worthwhile by meandering into the porter’s and speaking to him in a marvelously well-played but obviously faux faux-British accent as I asked him to open the gate so that I might return to my far more humble digs over at Harvey. He obliged, saying not a word, surely loathing me as he loathed the countless other Americans who’d played the same dumb notes. I thanked him kindly and genuinely and I think maybe that was all the same night. It was at least one of them, and they almost all began at The Eagle and oh how it did soar.
And I think of the Benedictine monk I befriended and with whom I still correspond and the barkeep who teased me about how I could never remember how much a beer cost, finally writing it for me on a napkin and having a big laugh and of the panhandlers outside the grocery in the town centre who copped attitudes and talked shit if you ignored them and the woman who passed me on the way in one day and remarked on how glum I looked and the rainy downpour day on a day trip to Lincoln when I got soaked to the bone and found the shrine of Little Saint Hugh while wedding preparations were underway around us and no one cared about Hugh and I and everything was darker and brighter at the same time, and of the photo I took of the cathedral through a crumbly gap in the castle wall across the way while someone held an odious green frog umbrella over me to protect my expensive borrowed camera from the drops and drips trickling and in some cases cascading through the cracks in the stone as wet as my bones but far far colder because inside I was warmed as could be by history and by presence and by some beautiful letting go, thinking of the prisoners who’d scrawled on the insides of the insides of those castle walls where I stood, of legends and libel, of hangings and the first long drop, of doors wide open for falling in.
I reluctantly took my leave of all this on a clear-skied and radiant morning and as I was crossing the courtyard draped in solemnity and luggage that American Spaniard (Spaniardican, let’s say, he deserves it) hung himself halfway out the window of his second floor room, bottle in hand as if it had been glued there all night, and bade me a still-drunken farewell that I felt welcomed us both to departure. Cheers, mate, he said, snapping me out of my slow half-sleep march walk trance. Cheers, I replied, looking up for the voice, waking up a little and seeing him, and thinking well isn’t that just a perfect sight and doesn’t all this somehow fit together and thank you, universe, for this gift box of things I couldn’t make up if I tried but will surely one day try to re-gift as fiction.
That’s what I think about. And the night we spent, the ghost and I. I think about that and cringe with less of a cringe than I cringed the morning after but cringy enough to still feel stupid, and glad. I’m not even sure how much of it is worth telling, but there it is, some of it told, enough. And that’s the end right there.
No, I did not tell her, didn’t tell a soul.