I remember a windy day.
Leaves crunched noisily underneath your worn sneakers; I amused myself then, imagining that they felt honored to die for you. Or were fallen leaves already dead? No matter. I walked beside you — beautiful, living, animated you — and kept stealing glances over at the red stubble on your face and the sea-green dreaminess of your eyes. If I could cast a spell and freeze you, for just a minute or an hour, I would spend all of that time staring at you — memorizing every freckle and wrinkle, each of your pupils and all of your pores.
You were leading us to a creek we’d visited before. I knew we were getting close now, because I could recognize the downward slope of the trail; there was something about it. A sort of tug or pull to it. Traffic sounds were almost able to follow us here, but they ended at a point several yards away from the water where they would wait patiently for me.
As these sounds begrudgingly retreated from us, I began to realize how squeaky my own sneakers were. What an annoying sound! I decided that the leaves here tolerated my presence only because it included yours.
And here, right here, I tripped right over a rock that had wedged itself halfway into the ground. I was able to catch my balance by grabbing onto the thing closest to me: you.
“Heyyyyy… you alright?” you asked, the smoky texture of your voice slicing through mid-November coolness and lighting a flame somewhere near my ribcage. The warmth of it heated the top layer of my abdomen, and the sudden rise in temperature made me feel like passing out or vomiting. I wished that I had a ginger ale.
“Oh, yeah!” I laughed, letting my arm linger on your right shoulder. Totally cliché, right? But I did it anyways.
I dropped my arm slowly, and you intercepted its fall, smoothly taking my hand in yours. So smoothly… so easily! It’s like, I knew you hadn’t been thinking about doing it or waiting for an opportunity… you just did it. Just like that.
Why did I always have to overthink these things? Imagine being brave about us without mustering any real guts? Always waiting for the right second, the perfect moment, an impossibly well-timed opportunity…
I waited too long. I can’t help but hate myself for it, because the smallest thing — pressing my lips against yours, leaning my head on your shoulder, or just kicking my left foot into the back of yours — could have changed the timing of things… could have changed everything.
When the creek came into view, you released my hand and crouched down near the edge of the water, where you dipped your fingers into it.
I knelt down beside you, letting my knees touch the ground and feeling the wetness of the soil soak through my faded denim jeans.
“I hope we’ll find some good ones today,” I said.
“Oh yeah… I’m sure we will.” So confident. So sure.
You lowered your head closer to the water and gazed at it with a ridiculous intensity, like you were some kind of anesthesiologist or chemist who needed their measurements to be very, very precise.
I huddled closer to you as you drew closer to the bed of the creek. Your fingers were already gone, and I watched your hands and wrists follow them underneath the water and could tell when they were touching sand; I knew this because the creek’s glassy surface became turbulent and murky as a cloud of debris bloomed. You’re definitely the type to cause a commotion. Gorgeous, brilliant, and constantly producing — always creating and changing and tinkering away. I often wonder if you’ll ever settle down… with yourself, with life, or with somebody.
The muscles in your forearms tensed suddenly, which told me that you’d just collected your first samples. I stared briefly at those forearms, straining to see the muscles and tendons and blood and bones underneath them, and I sighed without meaning to.
I don’t think you noticed. In a flash, your hands were breaking through the water. As you slowly unclenched each of your long and slender fingers, you grinned and inclined towards me so that we could inspect these specimens together.
“Oooooooh… I looooove this one,” I cooed, touching a reddish stone with my fingertip.
“That is a good one!” you agreed. “Go ahead and set it to the side.”
I reached into my back pocket, pulled out a plastic bag, and deposited the stone into it.
We perused the rest and found nothing remarkable. You took your time flinging each stone back into the water, watching the SPLASH, the pulsating ripples, and the tiny waves composing them. You took your time with your processes; you could never just set a ball in motion and then walk away from it, because you had to see and understand the impact of your actions. I wish you had walked away sometimes. I really do.
But you repeated your experiment another six times; reaching into the cool water, scooping up handfuls of slippery rocks, and then presenting them to me for review. We found three other beauties out there: a mossy-green, diamond-shaped stone; an opaque, black stone; and my favorite: an iridescent purple stone with the most interesting grooves and ridges. It was hard to classify the exact shape of it; it definitely wasn’t shapeless… it was just odd.
“What do you think turned this one purple?” I asked, clenching it in my hand a few times, so that I could get a good feel of the shape of it, and then bringing it closer to my eyes.
“Jesus,” you answered straightaway, with a tone of conviction.
We both laughed. My mother despised you for your atheism, which is, I guess, ironic, since Christians shouldn’t really despise anything… including people.
I heard a loud popping sound.
“What the fuck was that?” I whispered, startling.
“Hmmm… probably just somebody out hunting,” you answered, slowly and calmly. “It is, after all, the season for killing lovely little forest animals in the false names of necessity and manhood,” you continued irritably. “Primitive jackasses.”
I was glad you were a vegetarian; that was, at least, one thing my mother could appreciate about you. She kept five dogs on three acres and couldn’t see the difference between them and a pig, cow or chicken. I kept two German Shepherds myself and completely agreed with her.
“Ugh,” I breathed out in agreement with you, beginning to disarm myself.
“Anyways,” you continued brightly, looking over at me, “we’ll wrap some hemp around this purple one later and make a necklace for you,” you smiled.
I grinned back at you. “Yayyyyyyy! But what about you?” I asked. “Which one of these do you like most?”
You didn’t even bother to look before answering. “Any of them. They’re all equally lovely. I’ll take whichever one you think suits me best.”
I peeked into the bag and considered the characteristics and subtleties of each of them: mossy green – natural, organic, possessing strong intuition and an intrinsic goodness; mineral red — aged, altered, and either tarnished or seasoned; opaque black — classic, pure, dark, whole, mysterious…
Just then, a buck — a gorgeous, majestic, and strapping buck — came bolting towards us from the other side of the creek; he leapt into the water, barreled through it, and then emerged on the other side, passing us in a flash. There were splashes, and waves, and ripples galore, much more of them than any of your discarded stones had caused, and I just knew that you would be tickled by it.
“HOLY CRAAAAAAP,” I exclaimed, as another POP sounded. “Did you see him? Oh my gosh — how COOL was THAT! He looked so STRONG — did you see how fas–”
I turned to look at you, and when I saw that you were looking at me with positive alarm, my voice disappeared.
I noticed the panic in your eyes first and the little red specks on your neck second and then the big, dark red blot about an inch below your collarbone, which was growing wider with each heartbeat, third and then I looked up at your wide and terrified eyes again. Fourth.
“No…” I whispered. “No… Clyde.… no —– CLYDE!”
Two men came rushing towards us; I could hear them – their heavy footsteps and low voices that sounded angry and afraid — but I couldn’t make out a thing they said, because I was too busy holding you against me… whispering in your ear, and crying in your ear, and screaming NO, and scream-crying no, and thinking this must be a dream, this can’t be real, what are the chances, this can’t be real, no WAY is this really happening while your sticky cotton t-shirt soiled more and faster and stuck desperately to mine.
It smells like fall again.
Like cool, spicy, bittersweet decay. Leaves cover the street like carpet while the shadows and light behave strangely around each other. The wind rustles the leaves, animates the trees, and carries the scent of fresh ground coffee toward me.
I also caught, or thought I caught, your scent just now — salty, musky, and cinnamon-like… familiar. You smell like “home”, like “safe”, like “that one”. You also smell like “the creek” and “that deer” and “that pain”… a striking pain that looks and feels like a general, visceral, oozing and searing achiness.
It always feels like the spirits are out this time of year.
An opaque black stone is tied around my neck and, like the ticking of a clock, it knocks lightly against my chest bone with each careful step I take forward.
As the wind blows the leaves around, I watch them tumble forward; are they racing? Are they fleeing? Are they delighted by the ghostly chill in the air or perturbed at being disturbed? They’re just too lovely to be sad, or scared, or dead; too stubble-red and ocean-green and too oddly-shaped and wonderful to ever leave, to ever not be here.
Even as I’m trying hard to sidestep these crackly, colorful leaves, I’m realizing that avoiding all of them is impossible, because they are everywhere… and when they inevitably crunch underneath my tired feet, in small groups of two or three, I like to imagine them leaving with the spirits, and following yours, and the final noise that each one of them makes sounds just like a wish: “I am going to find you again.”
Like you, I don’t believe in a god, so while I don’t know where you went or where the leaves are going or where I will be heading after all of this, I do believe that I will also find you again, simply because I want to believe that I will, and in a way, I have to believe that I will, or absolutely everything will just fall apart. So I’m waiting. And waiting. Always waiting, waiting, waiting…
Too long. I know I’ve waited too long.
The coffee smells equal parts bitter and sweet; my cup of it tastes like creek water and ashes.
Oh, I used to love the fall.
Note from the author: I edited this story at a cafe this morning but actually drafted it three weeks ago, before the big epiphany…
Isn’t it interesting to see how processing and coping with grief requires all kinds of activities, trains of thought, and exertion — physical, mental, and emotional? Isn’t it intriguing — how grief can MANIFEST itself using a full range of emotions, WRITE itself into fictitious stories, and expertly WEAVE its way into the strangest dreams?
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