It was a blue shirt. Old, weathered, but not worn or laundered since it first took up residence in my closet. Worn on a Fall evening long ago.
Overhead, a sound passing by, the somnolent engine, the gnashing crunch of tires meeting gravel, the sound moving away, dying away, not to return. From somewhere close, a deep sigh, myself, or the wind in the trees, shivering stalks against the sky. Today will be tears, then tomorrow. But tears will eventually slow to a quiet seeping of dreams against a pillow in the night, muffled resignation that you hope no one sees traces of in the day. Days that grew round and monotonous, life slowing to one of quiet acceptance.
When someone leaves, you go through the motions of life. You endure your days, fueled by habit, filling up the hours and hope they're busy enough for you to fall asleep at night and not dream of the warm body that hasn't lain next to you for so long. It often doesn't work.Those are the nights when the loneliness clamps down hard, with sharp weasel teeth, when all you want to do is pick up the phone, or shout to the heavens, and speak to that person who become a part of you, then moved suddenly away, taking with them small bits of flesh, exposing nerve endings to the frigid night air. But you don't.
Sometimes you can't.
Life goes on watch, and you listen for that crunch of gravel that is only the delivery man, as the vines creep against the house, growing wild, overflowing to your heart, constricting it.
But there's chores to do, they do not wait, the smell of oak, smoked fire already burning, the instructions that someone once gave me, how to penetrate the honeyed wood, its core as hard as iron, the axe aimed down, straight to the heart of the knot. The axe strikes and the wood falls to pieces and the things you can not ignore burn into you.
Finally, one day, after a dark and introspective night, you'll wake to the sound of warm rain beating against the eaves, flush with dreams, your body alive in a tangle of sheet. Not quite remembering the particulars of that night dream but just the feeling it imprinted on you, as you breathe in wakefulness, bringing back memories of that long forgotten. Dreams of longing, memories of love, of desire, fleeting things, reflections in a river, seen for just a second of quick glance, then swept away in the solitary stream that is your life now. For it seems you can hardly remember what it was like when you felt that way. When you loved, with urgency, with pressing need. Then something, just a simple smell, touches the place where that feeling was, a touch as slight and quick as fabric against your skin, as soft and fleeting as a birds wings against your face. And you'll quicken to the memory. And hope takes wing.
The shirt was found unexpectedly while cleaning out in preparation for a move, and in the suddenness of its discovery, it trickles trough my hands like tears, puddling to the ground as the memory awakes.
That evening so long ago, was much like any other Autumn evening, with the air crisp with cold, brushed with the scent of kindling alight. You too, have had an evening like that, where anticipation waits like an embrace, ticklish like a stray hair brushing against the back of your neck. An evening, perhaps recently, perhaps long ago, where you were swept away for only a moment on a late night, a moment that's repeated itself, minute by minute in your memory, wrong man, wrong moment. One of those times that you wish you could turn back on itself, as if you had never been there at all.
I'd heard he was in town on business. How long had it been since I'd made that decision, the one to end things. I was wrapped up in my new career as much as anything, chasing dreams, and somehow the whole lifelong commitment thing loomed into the horizon, I knew I had to make a decision. So I made the call that was one of the hardest I had ever made. I called him to say I couldn't see him any more. He sounded hurt, he sounded relieved. He sounded unbearably tired. But mostly relieved. I wasn't ready for anything serious, not like he wanted. After all the changes in my life, a new career, family to tend to, I wasn't ready to give what he wanted. Yet. So I cut the tether and let him go.
Renovating an old house became my sanctuary, the power of saw and sweat the tithing of my soul. My mind was desperate to sort out the past before I made a decision about the future, decisions that could change not just my life, but anothers. Sometimes creating something with hard work and wood helped. I tried not to think of the last months since we said goodbye on the phone. Impersonal, distanced, spoken through a cold receiver, the dial tone as he hung up echoing in the empty room. The conversation that made me want to just get in the old farm truck and drive until the horizon filled my whole world. Why is escape so difficult? Finding peace. Why can I sometimes only find that in in in the power of a hammer, the scent of black powder, the feel of a yoke or steering wheel under my hand? Forces that, for an instant I can control. But I knew that I did the right thing, for to promise to something, to someone who cared so deeply, when I was not ready to give it, was the cruelest of good intentions.
So I went back to the life of fire and wood. As I swung the axe into another small log, I thought of his last words " I will come back, you know", the words as a hand against my back, a feeling lingering across my shoulders, down my arms that whisper their own aching promise But months passed, and when I realized I was finally ready for what he was asking, the phone lay silent.
I was finishing a second coat of paint when finally, the phone rang. "I'm in the neighborhood, can I see you? There's something I need to tell you". He sounded wistful, he sounded happy, and my heart unexpectedly missed on two cylinders as I suddenly smiled. Truly smiled, for the first time in months. I placed the piece of drying work aside, racing around trying to compose my thoughts, my regrets, the decision that I should have made when it was there for me to make. Trying to ready a dog hair filled house in just a few minutes. I needed to make us some supper. How long had it been since I'd had someone over? Soon the kitchen would be warm with spice, the ripe juice of something fresh picked bursting on my lips.
Before you know it, before I'm showered and changed, he's waiting on my doorstep. That blue shirt. The way he stood, inviting smile and eyes the color of an evening sky, body relaxed in a pair of khakis. He was smiling a boyish hesitant grin. The sight of him dries old tears and turns my empty heart to longing. Was that you I said goodbye to?
I pull back, feeling a knot of nerves tie in my stomach, the fear a noose around my heart. I step back as I look into his smile, struggling to see his motives, searching his eyes to define my own. "Can I just touch you, will that help me let go of my angst?" I say to myself. For there is so much unsaid there, so many questions, his questions, mine. My fear. His? These are the intangible walls that distance us, the walls of heartache, made of concrete laced with steel, impenetrable. Walls that protect. Walls that distance.
Let me just touch you, I say silently. Tear down that wall, rip the concrete from it's foundation. Words only heard in my soul.
But as if reading my thoughts, he pulls me towards him in the familiar hug of a best friend, I hear my heart pounding as he opens his arms to envelop me. He finds a dab of of thick yellow paint tattooed to my cheek, just underneath my eye. A kiss lands nearby. My lips silently call to him as his clean, masculine scent makes me want to just blurt it out. But I don't. I have to stay in control, I tell myself.
I draw him inside, into a house that now feels like home. "I just wanted to see you in person" he says. "I wanted to hear your voice". I can't keep the words inside much longer. I was an idiot. I love you. I want it all. I'm ready. I want to just get it out. But I keep quiet, afraid to interrupt.
"I wanted to be the one to tell you in person", as he takes off his outer blue shirt, with the precision of movement and form that made me weak in the knees. Setting it on the chair, he stands before me, looking happy and hopeful in his work worn pants and T-shirt. The words hang in the air, dense with longing, waiting to be breathed in deep.
When you're young no one tells you the full story about love, that there is seldom a fairy tale ending like at the movies. You had rehearsed your love story over and over in your head, speaking the words you had scripted so carefully, waiting for what you know he will say back. Then, braced with the chill fall air, I open my mouth to speak, to finally say the words. He speaks first and the words are not what played in my head.
"I'm getting married."
My eyes follow his voice as it drifts out the window and fades. All I can see are dying leaves, windswept trees, barren fields, barren plans. I pretend to concentrate on a plant I'd set inside after last night's frost, too late, touching the skeletal frozen buds, making the ensuing silence that much sadder.
I step step away from the warmth of the room, so he doesn't see the beginning of tears and face the yard, as a tree outside explodes into flight as hundreds of birds are startled into escape. There I stand, that spot of paint on my face a dam holding back the tears, drying next to the warmth of his kiss.
As the tree bursts forth, I watch hundreds of birds vanish into the evening, gone as if they never existed, as the tree stands empty, except for just one lone bird.
One left, like the shirt there now, forgotten in his departure. A shirt the clear blue of tears, trailing in the wake of his words of apology for not telling me sooner. "Are you OK, you look pale". "I knew you'd be happy for me". Words biting my skin like insects, drawing blood from veins that had little to spare. I couldn't wait to get the door closed behind him, attempting a smile, telling him I had to go, something had come up, but congratulations, honestly, really. Then collapsing into tears, as I waved him gaily out of sight.
Now, on another chill evening, with the sound of a guitar playing in the background, I hold the fabric close to me, breathing in the heat we might have made and the smell that still clings to that blue shirt of his that remained, hanging in my closet, a remembrance of scent and touch. The cloth is faded and fragile, like all dreams. Then, finally, I put it away, deep in a drawer and find that finally, its touch is but dim memory on my fingers.