I have dreams about the end of the story;
there’s no explosions, there’s never any holy glory.
Just a bunch of people,
lost and sleepy,
trying to find someone…
– Haley Bonar, “Bad Reputation”
This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
– Billy Collins, “Aristotle”
Later, after the fires had died down and the bombs stopped falling, we would spend the days wondering not why, exactly, but when. We had lost the ability, it seemed, to place ourselves in time. Some of us would peer forward, squinting into the dark. Others would look back and silently trace the trajectory that had led us here. At any rate there was a gap in our knowledge; a window with the blinds drawn. And every time someone would point with certainty, here, it started here, we knew deep down that it could not be that simple; that there were reasons within reasons, stories behind stories.
That night, for instance, at a rooftop restaurant in Panama City, candleflame low between you and I on the table. You were comfortable in Panama in a way I was not, and all that week I had been unable to shake that feeling of intrusion, unbelonging—you speaking a language I did not know to friends I’d never met. But that night, at last, was different. It was one of those warm evenings when it feels like the world is perched on the cusp of something: the breeze rolling in from the ocean, the downtown high-rises bright in the distance. And as if to prove it, there were fireworks that night, great orbs of yellow and green reflecting off the water, igniting car alarms below us in the street. What was I saying to you? It was about how some people believe that the universe splits with every decision we make: a trillion parallel, invisible timelines. A garden of forking paths. You asked what I believed, and I said I like to think we exist in the universe where we have made all the right decisions, where every step has led us right to where we’re meant to be.
But that was months ago, and now who can say for sure? Looking back, I can see how even on that perfect night the wheels were already in motion; how even as fireworks burst out across the harbor, there was lightning advancing behind them, sharp silent sheets rippling above the city skyline.
How strange, that endings come in stages. One thinks of them as finite things: a wall, a line, a checkpoint at the border. And yet they’re more like wallpaper, layer beneath layer, pattern giving way to pattern. Yesterday, pouring myself a cup of tea, I realized I could no longer remember the sound of your voice. The shock was so great that I jerked the kettle and scalded my hand. Boiling water splattered the counter; burning slashed my skin like a claw. In a simpler story, this moment would be the end of things, the closing metaphor of the book: my knuckles beneath the tap, cold water numbing away the hurt. So why, then, this lingering rawness in my chest? Not pain, exactly, but the memory of; as though loss has made a permanent impression on my heart. My heart, like a pillow still dented from the weight of a head, not yet returned to its original form.
In the mirror in the morning I notice strange scratches on my back, angled across my shoulder blades. There is one on my side, one on my collarbone that stings when I touch it. None of them were there the night before. I stand, confused. Did I do this? I clasp my arms across my shoulders, mummy-like, peering backwards to see if my fingernails can reach that far. They can, barely, if I strain and press deep into the skin. I’ve been told I grind my teeth at night, clench my jaw with stress. Now I wonder, uneasily, what I dream about that causes me to hold on so tightly to myself, what I would lose by letting go.
My last night in Panama, you asked: you can picture a future without me, right? We were in our hotel room, hot even with the AC on. You sat on the edge of the bed in a sundress, your back to me, your head turned sideways over your shoulder. Your bangs blew lightly in the cool air.
I can picture all kinds of futures, I replied. I was not quite lying but I was not quite telling the truth, because picturing is not the same as believing. But I felt panic overtake me, blood rushing to my head. And that night, our last together, we slept without touching, side by side on our backs. Or rather you slept, while I lay as if pinned to the mattress and wondered why I had only said what I thought you wanted to hear. To this day I wonder if I could have salvaged us, if I had only this or only that; perhaps I could have convinced you there was more to our story. (The writer in me saw too many loose ends to be satisfied, like a novel ending partway through a chapter.) But I never knew how to reach you when your mind was made up, never knew how much to push. I am still unsure whether I fought too hard, as you said, for you, or not nearly hard enough.
That fall, after I arrived back home, the bombs started. For weeks I could see south from my window to the fires, and sometimes, when the wind was blowing in the right direction, I would wake up to find the city encased in smoke, curling long tendrils down the street. In the mornings we wiped ashes from our windshields, and even on clear days the air smelled of melted asphalt and charred earth. The roads out of town were closed, the countryside shut down. The sky buzzed with helicopters headed out towards the flames, like a swarm of mechanical cicadas cutting urgently through the haze. Those were the days when people on the street would still nod to each other and smile tightly, hurry along in a simulacrum of normality. It will be handled, the look said. It will be contained.
I remember those first months of our separation as a time of profound silence. In the night, as the bombs fell in the distance, I lay on my side and pulled a pillow against my back to pretend it was the weight of your body, as if at any moment you might turn over in your sleep and wrap your arm around me. Jules told me over the phone that what I needed was time and distance, the time-tested cure. But what do you do when the cure is the same as the affliction? You had been in Panama for sixteen months by the time we split, and I had long since grown accustomed to your absence, structured my days and activities around it the way a potter shapes clay. Even now, I type these words and feel a creeping shame at my failure to untangle myself from you. Maybe you were right: perhaps I cared too much, placed too much weight on the solace you brought me. Some nights I fought it, busied myself with books and the delusion that the emptiness didn’t bother me. But then there were nights when the fires were particularly bad, and I would give in and crawl inside my loneliness like a blanket and huddle there, because wrapping your absence around me was the one way I could feel close to you again, close to you, and safe.
To make an end is to make a beginning, T.S. Eliot once proclaimed. The end is where we start from. A popular sentiment, but one I don’t wholeheartedly believe—for it is not the end that matters, precisely, but some point after. And what do we call that space between, the bridge I currently inhabit? The middle separates the beginning from the end. But what divides the end from the beginning? I search for a word to pinpoint my body, to locate myself in the narrative. But my language is a wasteland. I am beyond the aftermath, past the slipstream, without a compass and no sense of north. The past casts its shadow across every path, every possible route. And though I am ready to be free of it, to cross the border and leave all this behind, I cannot see ahead to the boundary. Roots and branches tug at my feet. In the darkness I fall, rise, fall, rise.
All that season I could hear the dull thuds of the bombs continuing to fall. Closer and closer they came, the ground shuddering with each impact. Plates slid from the shelves; cracks spiderwebbed the windows. Ash floated indifferently down. The lights flickered off and on, though never died completely. Many of us in the city gathered together to discuss our options; we talked of the fires, the helicopters, the periods of waiting that followed. We spoke in whispered, incensed tones. But in the end, what could we really do? We were citizens of the aftermath, scurrying anxiously into the blasted-out holes, carrying out survivors, searching for objects worth salvaging from the rubble. I longed for your voice in those days, yearned not to return home to another hole in a city full of them.
What of false starts, red herrings, the moments we mistook for destiny? In university I dated a girl who believed that the Bible revealed the literal history of the world and that God had whispered in her ear one morning after church. Pretty girls often cause men to lose track of themselves, and so it was that I began attending service with her on Sundays, in a round, echoing space with a Latin name and a band in tight v-necks playing Christian rock songs on the stage. I had never been religious. But on those Sunday mornings with the cherry blossoms in bloom, I became convinced that I felt something moving inside me, something deep and mysterious. Even after the relationship ended I continued to attend on my own. I lay in bed at night and thought of God and wept with gratitude and joy. There, briefly, I felt as if my life were on the verge of something, that a door had begun to open. And then, without warning, it closed again. To this day I cannot say why, exactly: why I stopped attending, why my nightly prayers shriveled up. I can’t even say with certainty that I didn’t make some terrible mistake. In the midst of the storm, it is impossible to parse the vital from the inessential, the substantial from the fleeting. Without context and consequence, no event is anything more than itself. It is only now that I can look back and see that what I thought was a new beginning was in fact only one piece of a broader story, a single rung on an incalculable ladder.
Flashes of memory: a winter in Amsterdam, wandering down darkened canals together, the cathedral bells all ringing. Your body twitching as you drifted off to sleep, brief spasms jolting your limbs; the small scar at the base of your spine. Your finger, running absently down the curve of my ear, as if along the edge of a seashell. My mind, sharpened to a point in your presence.
These details flutter up in the course of my day: little sparks, tiny traces. As do the things I’ve forgotten, things I don’t realize I’ve forgotten until they drift, unassuming, across my path. Every so often, I’ll catch a glimpse of your name: on the spine of a book, in the credits of a film, a friend of a friend at a party. And each time I can feel my brain jolt, whirring and clicking, as if faced with a foreign word whose meaning, once known, has since been lost. I turn it over and over again in my mouth. I weigh it, measure it, take its shape; marvel at the strangeness of a sound that was once so familiar.
Even now I ask myself if it’s not you I miss as much as who we were then: inhabitants of a world that had not yet lost its mind. When I think of the endless weekends we spent together in bed, the world vague and far away, I wonder if it isn’t those days I long for so much as the freedom of those days: the privilege of carelessness. Now the whole world is askew. We have stepped out of Plato’s cave, and once have you begun to see, how can you stop? Is it still possible to lie in bed on a Saturday morning and have no thoughts except for the sunlight on the windowsill and the body curled like a question mark against yours? I can’t even long for that moment without thinking how far the world is from what it was then; how far we are now from who we were.
Are you pretending, the way I’m pretending? I can count the ways: the girl with the long blue mermaid hair; the girl with the sharp laugh and sharper gaze; the girl who told me stories of how she went on sea cruises to avoid the company of others. A litany of nights last fall I was too afraid to sleep alone but too ashamed to admit the truth, and so I dressed it up in flirtations and fancy gin and put-upon interest. But I could never lose myself enough to forget. Your ghost sat on the edge of the bed and silently watched, and when it was over I rolled on my side and wished that it was your body lying next to mine. I wonder if my ghost is there with you too. I wonder if it whispers in your ear when you sleep as yours does mine, tells you that it has never grown normal not to hear your voice.
There are times now when I feel like the most selfish creature alive. On calmer days I walk past the the scorched wreckage of my neighbors’ lives and I loathe myself for coveting my personal heartbreak over the anguish of the world. Yet I cannot distinguish them in my mind, cannot demarcate the boundaries of pain. In my more lucid moments I think, perhaps, that’s the trick. For how can we feel the pain of others if first we cannot feel our own? But most days my thoughts are elusive, half-formed. Like fingers on wet stone, they slip, one after the other, from my grasp.
The bombs have stopped now, though we are all wary that a pause is not necessarily an end. There have been no treaties, no apologies, no explanations; only a swollen, pregnant silence. At any moment, we all know, it may start again, and as we carry on our everyday business, we walk hunched forward, eyes cast upwards in constant anticipation. We do not speak. Even in the midst of rebuilding our lives we step around the subject as if around a beggar, refer to it as that time or the incident—as if we can take our months of pain and trauma and rob them of their power, compress them down to a single word easily obscured beneath a yawn, or a cough. We certainly do not talk about the thought that has occurred to some of us: that maybe the bombs haven’t stopped at all, but that we have just grown used to them, our bodies absorbing the blasts the way elevator music slowly drops from your hearing. We do not ask what it means if the end of the world has come and gone, and we mistook it for something else.
And you and I, where fall we on the spectrum? Not long ago I read a story about a man, a director, whose girlfriend left him. In his grief he decided to make a film about their relationship, only to fall in love with the actress playing his ex. I believe in serendipity, little tricks of fate like that. But I thought about that story for weeks afterward, wondered who it was that he saw when he looked at his partner now: her own self, or an echo of the woman she had played? Had his grief ended, or simply taken on a new form? The story scared me, my love; I do not want to live my life inside an echo.
And so I tell myself, every night before I sleep, that this is the end. I lie on my back, arms at my side, body cocooned within the blankets, and I tell myself that when I wake, I will not think of you. I will find my own way into the future. But when I sleep, I dream of a shifting, uncertain world, full of long shadows and burnt-out buildings from some unknown, unnamed war. It is night and I am moving through this landscape toward a distant border, though I cannot say quite why or where it lies. The streets of this bombed-out city are empty; the people have all fled its crumbling. But I can feel your presence somewhere ahead, across this mean and unlit terrain. I know I should resist, turn back. Dig my heels into the dirt. But still I’m drawn onwards by a force I can’t escape, like a magnet forever seeking its opposite, and when I wake in the morning it lingers, that pull. I lie there adjusting, letting the feeling seep through my body. And for one brief moment, I contain every mile between us: each cross-street, each rest stop, each mountain range and harbor. Then I gather them all and tuck them away, and I rise to face the broken world.
– March 2017