A Letter Long Overdue

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
coffee and letters. I wish I was better at writing letters. I buy blank cards all the time!

I was surprised when it happened, not because of the gravity of it, but because of the ease. You flipped off the radio, said none of that’s any good, then inserted your favorite mixtape. And with a few notes you brought me from that apprehensive silence I always dwelled in, that perpetual nervousness: I love this song. We didn’t have to speak because the music spoke for us; we sang through the mountain backroads, windows down, till our throats were dry. After that, we had to be friends; there was no way I could know all the songs on that tape of yours and not be. I liked being your friend. At school we’d sit in the courtyard under the dogwood during lunch; you knew the noise and lighting of the cafeteria gave me a headache, made me doubt myself. And you loved to see me outside it all, like that day driving through the mountains. You were the mountains for me: clear, quiet air with a view.
            In the beginning we just talked about your music, like that cover of “Mr. Brightside” you liked better than the original. At first I scoffed at the thought, but then I heard it and understood; the music was clearer, slower, more poignant. Looking back now I know that the cover wasn’t better, just different, more transparent. So of course you liked it better, because of its honesty; you always hated the liars the most.
            I didn’t fall in love with you as much as I fell into the rhythm of it. Midnight phone calls from the telephone booth down the street from the apartment when the yelling from the kitchen got too loud; phone calls sitting cross-legged on the toilet lid, the spiral cord pulled under the closed bathroom door so Emma Lou wouldn’t tell Dad that I was talking to a boy; and then, that one night, a phone call from the kitchen at three a.m. while Dad screamed and threw pots and pans and nearly hit me with one. My step mom took Emma Lou and left but left me crumbling on the kitchen floor, and I thought I was a gonner, but you charged in with a double barrel shot gun—unloaded, just for show—and took me back to your place.
            And that night you kissed me like we’d done it a million times before. You kissed me because you wanted me to feel beautiful, you said, and I did. Despite my messy sweat-covered curls and tear stains on my tee-shirt, I felt beautiful because of the way you looked at me. That was the night I knew I loved you. There was no pomp and circumstance, no heart-flutters, no shooting stars or strawberry wine. Just me and you, alive, dancing in the kitchen at two a.m. with no music at all because we couldn’t wake your parents. My whole life I felt unwanted, out of place, but dancing across the linoleum in your kitchen taught me the art of living.
            Oh, God, I hated the way it ended. I don’t regret it, because with the wisdom of retrospect I know it was meant to be. But in the moment, and for years afterwards, I hated what I did to you. But, of course, because the universe finds great humor in irony, you were the reason I did it.
            You were always telling me about the greyhound busses, romanticizing them. You felt the most at home on the road; blame it on my gypsy soul, you said. But you never had the courage to pursue that feeling of aliveness. You taught me what it meant to be alive but when it came down to it you didn’t know what it meant yourself.
            After high school I worked full time at the laundromat on Lexington and 125th, got a cheap place in Harlem. You offered to let me stay with you in a safer area of town, but I wouldn’t. So one night we found ourselves screaming in the kitchen, just like Dad and my step mom, and I knew we were done. I want you to be safe, you said. And I loved you for it, but I needed to know what it was like to look over my shoulder, to value life enough to care to look over my shoulder; I needed to know how quickly it could all slip away from me.
            That next year was all rhythms, no passion: on Mondays you brought wine from the Italian restaurant where you worked, Tuesdays we ate pizza, Wednesdays were Chinese. But two months after the kitchen fight I decided to take two more jobs. I was always working so you didn’t bring wine anymore. Some nights I’d come home to find you asleep on my couch, waiting for me. I’d curl up next to you because I knew that soon I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore, wouldn’t be able to hold you whenever I wanted.
            A year after the kitchen fight, to the day, I released you. First I kissed you fiercely, brought my nose to that leather jacket you loved and memorized its smell, held you. Then I climbed in the taxi that took me to the greyhound bus station and got on the bus that took me to where I am now.
            My daughter asked about you last week. Well, not directly, but she asked about the first time I fell in love with being alive. At first, when I told her about you, she rolled her eyes, said, Mom, we’re strong independent women, not damsels in distress. I smiled, touched her shoulder, told her she was right, I was no damsel, and if I ever was in distress I didn’t know it. I told her something I’d never told anyone. It was philosophical, I thought, and I owe the idea to your memory.
            I told her that we’re only human, and there’s no shame in needing other humans to help us off the ground every once in a while. I was in a place of darkness and you carried me out. And then when we found the darkness again, because we’d grown tired of each other, I let you go. We’re human, and part of being human is letting other humans in. You were the first one I ever let in, and that was what made me feel alive.
            I’m sorry I never called or wrote until now. But I ran into an old friend yesterday who’s a friend of a friend of one of your friends, and she told me about the dementia. Early on-set, she said; no one saw it coming. And then I knew I had to write you, because I’ve cherished your memory for so long, and I thought that maybe someone should tell you our story, just in case you’ve forgotten. Because when the tunnel gets foggy and dark, as I know it will soon, you’ll need something—someone—to take your hand and pull you out. So I’m sending this letter just in case you’ve lost that feeling of aliveness that you taught me to chase. If you’ve lost it, I hope that this sparks it again, that it will grow into a flame. 

           That flame will pull you out of the darkness.