And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time "
-T.S. Eliot; Little Gidding
When I was ten my family moved to a new sub-division across town. Ours was the only house on the block, but the land around us had been plowed under in preparation for others. I met Billy at lunch one day, recess to be exact. He scraped his knee when we played soccer on the pavement, and I walked him to the nurse. On the weekends his mother would drop him off at my house and we ventured out into the muddy castles of prenatal suburbia. We could climb down into the craters dug for foundations and pile mud into walls. When it was wet enough we made balls out of the mud and threw them at each other. One time we even attempted a mud man, but decided he didn't look right. Afterwards we would go to the pond on the other side of the field, where there was still grass. In the small row of trees at the water's edge we stripped down naked and washed our clothes. Once we hung them on the branches to dry Billy would jump in the water, and I followed. We'd swim until our clothes were dry, then bask in the sun and return home right in time for dinner, clean as our innocence. Billy convinced me that the world in which we lived wasn't one that could dirty our nails, or be plowed by bulldozers.
One day Billy asked me if I knew what sex was. I lied and said yes. I was pretty sure it was similar to kissing, but maybe with hands. Billy nodded, like he knew I wasn't sure, but didn't say anything. When she was tucking me in that night I asked my mom what it was, and she replied I would learn when I was older. I fell asleep dreaming of knowing about sex and why the pond where we swam was just as I imagined heaven.
I bought my first car shortly after turning sixteen. For a thousand bucks from my neighbor I acquired an old two door Camry, ran great but looked like crap. I figured out I could take it off road if the ground was dry.
I started dating Eryn because some of the guys on the football team said she was hot. That's how it was in high school; I acted off the opinion of others more than those that matter. For some reason Eryn loved me. We used to putter around town in that old Camry, and slowly I began to learn. In a field off a back road, under the light of billboard advertising to the interstate, I parked the Camry on many summer nights. Eryn was passionate, but we weren't about to have sex. She wore a ring on her wedding finger, and told me she was saving herself for marriage. At the time I still wasn't sure what sex was. Not the technicality of it, I knew that, but the colors between the lines, the ones illuminated with hormones and desire. Later I would learn but then it would be too late.
I had her trust and vow of chastity, and pushed both further than the speed limit. In the back seat of my Camry, with the windows rolled down, we'd sweat our love through clothes. I liked to lean my head on Eryn's chest and listen to her heartbeat out of tune with the radio. Her dark brown hair fell across her eyes when she slept, and with her delicate hands she traced pictures I could never depict on my chest. The lights from the billboard danced rhythms across her clothed breasts, and the sound of her breath going and coming with the cars on the interstate pieced the momentary melody of an eternal song. I knew it then, and I know it now.
We talked about our future and I told her I wanted to marry her. We would move to a city, I said, where I could make enough to keep you happy.
I'm happy now, she said.
Yes, but then you would be really happy, I'd reply, toying with the ring on her finger.
Do you think we'll last forever? she asked me.
Yes, I'd say.
She would kiss me; her hands would trace the outline of my abs. Does anything? she asked.
We'll know one day, I said.
We'll just know.
To get home for Billy's funeral I had to buy a plane ticket. He didn't look peaceful in the casket, and though we hadn't talked in almost three years I was pissed with his parents for even leaving it open.
So sad, people murmured as they walked by. I didn't say a word.
For the first time since I had left home, I missed it. And for the first time since Billy and I had parted ways I missed him. I missed the days when the world ended with our pond, war was a game men played, and sex was a way to kiss the girl you liked. Looking back our separation was like most moments in my life, I never understood them to be significant until I took the time to look. Hindsight's twenty-twenty, they say, and it's all water under the bridge. Water under the bridge my ass, I thought, as I looked down into the casket, this isn't fair.
Billy had written me a letter before he left. In it he said all the usual things, everything you would expect about honor, and country and duty. All that. But he said something really interesting too, something that had haunted me in the hours of night when sleep evaded. He talked about being a pilgrim. He said he was wandering, looking for something. Said he didn't know what he was looking for, but he had to look. He hoped he would find it soon. I just assumed it was the marijuana talking. The kid smoked too much weed for his own good. Or maybe not enough. Who knows?
He looks so peaceful, one couple remarked as they walked by.
Bullshit, I thought, he was shot. A life that ends unplanned isn't peaceful.
A man came into my office with scars all over his arms. I wondered why he had his sleeves rolled up, seemed ridiculous but he was obviously demented. I tried to be polite; I asked him what I could do for him.
He said he'd had a dream and that I was in it, so of course he had to come tell me. He said that in the dream he saw me, just as I was on TV, dressed in suit and tie, wise and dignified. In it I was standing against a wall. Strippers, all of them topless, surrounded me, with one-dollar bills hanging from their thongs. I had a joint in my mouth, he said, and an arm across one of the girls. Then the brick wall behind me faded, and I stood up straight. The girls all dwindled and fell, like paper cut outs, and with a slight breeze they were gone. The joint burned out and slowly my body began to turn to a shadow, until all that remained was just an illusion of what I had never been.
The man told me all this sitting straight and looking me in the eye. He didn't blink once.
I asked him what he wanted, if he was from the other campaign.
I want nothing, he replied, but you need everything.
You have scars on your arms, I told him.
The scars are from you, he replied, every one of them.
I told him to get help, and see his way out of my office.
He didn't move, but slowly pointed to his right arm.
I picked up the phone and told him if he wasn't out in five seconds, I would call the cops.
He waited for four, then stood up and left without a word.
I went home and wanted to tell Helen, my wife, what had happened. But she was already asleep. Since she had been pregnant she hadn't really been sick, just tired all the time. She slept at least ten hours a day.
Rylynn came downstairs a good half hour before her date was supposed to pick her up.
Do I look all right, Mom? She asked Helen.
I was watching TV with my back to them, but I could hear her in the kitchen, the swish and swash of her prom dress.
Do you think he'll like it?
I was scanning the news for any campaign headlines I hadn't heard yet. Helen used to tell me I was obsessed. Not in a good way, she'd always add. But the report was about genocide in some third world country; one I knew I should care about more. The camera scanned the streets and landed on a small child, sobbing over a body. The dead carcass was decorated with bloody handprints; it looked like the artwork we used to have hanging on the fridge when Rylynn was in kindergarten.
Dad, how do I look? She was standing next to me.
I turned off the TV and stood up. She glanced up with me with her vibrantly blue eyes, the ones she got from her mother.
You look beautiful, I told her. Then I kissed her on the forehead.
What are you thinking about? Helen sat down next to me after Rylynn had gone. I was staring at the TV, still turned off.
I shook my head.
She looked gorgeous.
Yes, she did, I agree.
He seemed nice.
Yes, he did.
Why don't we go out tonight? I've been wanting try the new Italian restaurant. The one by your office.
Did I ever tell you about the man and his dream?
What? Helen looked at me, and I shook my head.
No. What man?
Nothing. I love you.
When the doctors told me for the first time I didn't believe them. Helen cried. I thought I should try and calm her down, but I didn't know what to say. I was scared, I just couldn't cry. She left to call Rylynn, but I knew how that would end.
Now I lie in a white bed and breathe through a tube. With every breath I hear the beeping of my heart monitor. When I get bored with watching TV, I time my breath with the monitor, trying to remember the song Eryn and I would listen to in the car, so many summers back. I breathe in and breathe out. I trick my mind into thinking I'm creating a melody, but just when I'm about to get it I have another coughing fit, then the nurse comes in and scolds me.
I meander on the edge of eternity: the black hole with Lord knows what in it. When I sleep, I dream in black and white, there's no longer color, and there's certainly no gray. I think of Billy every now and then, but mostly I just think of me. I try to tell myself that when my breathing matches the heart monitor, I'll be back at the pond, Billy lying naked next to me, and Eryn will be resting her head on my chest.
Meanwhile CNN plays on TV and there's something about a hurricane in the gulf coast. The female anchor has a high voice that rattles me so much I tell the nurse to turn it down. Helen brings me a newspaper every day, so I can read about the world I love like a passenger waiting to get on an airplane, reading the letters of his adulterous lover, knowing he's left her for good.
When I close my eyes my bed turns to a treadmill, crisp and black. I'm standing, walking, and then running. The newspaper floats in front of me, and then the lunatic with the dream appears. He's just looking at me, shaking his head, and pointing to the scars on his arm yelling: Run! Run! But he had an empty look in his eyes telling me the time to run had gone.
I run, and I cough. I cough up blood that's black, because there's no color left in my word. I push forward, hope eternally, never move, never leave and never arrive.