“The first breath of autumn was blowing through the trees…”
“She was the most beautiful girl in the room.”
“What about the other girls, Dad? What was so special about her?”
“Well, Son, I’ll tell you. Nothing was different about her. There was nothing special about her at all, in fact. It was just love. Stupid love. And it decided for me, whether I liked it or not, that I would choose to love her. I don’t know, but it did, I tell you.”
“You’ll understand someday, Son. Love, well, I should say true love, has nothing to do with who is being loved, but who is doing the loving. And, even then, their choice to love someone else is forced on them by, well, love. I don’t quite know how to explain it. It’s very simple and, yet, very mysterious.”
“Oh Dad, you and your metaphysical explanations.”
“Let me see if I can explain it clearer…
In my case, the love that brought and kept me and her was not blind. It was not misplaced, inappropriate, or too soon. It was true love; as true as any other eternal force that holds finite creatures together. We were inseparable, we were innocent, we were friends…
Love has a way of bringing two people together even before they know what’s going on. It is the force above and next to the board, pushing and dividing and placing all the pieces exactly where they belong. It fights against itself, it seems. It moves the pieces in ways that might seem awkward to us. It is the force behind all we hate and all we cherish. It is the enemy and the ally, the black and the white, the one force that moves everything along. And it speaks a different language.
The first time I sat next to her in class, nothing passed between us. There were no shy glances across our shoulders, no passing of notes, and no patient listening. We were two people who needed each other. Neither our bodies nor our hearts cried out for affection. It was something much quieter, less dogged, and more powerful. Our souls, silent servants of love, drew us into the middle, where we both met and made a place to dwell. It is the emptiness of a soul that requires filling. She was not made for me, nor I for her. There was nothing special about her, nothing that made me think, “She is the one.” It was not love at first sight and I don’t think that such a thing exists. It was the thing in the middle that our souls knew they needed before we did. It was not her. It was the love in the middle. And we just happened to meet when reaching for it.
“John. You’re late. Please take a seat. There’s a seat next to Lucy over there.” The towering figure stood before me, wearing black dress pants and a white oxford.
The entire class looked up at me in silence, like the audience at a play. My backpack was slung over one shoulder and I held it steady with my hand. My back was hunched, as I stared up at my teacher. He slid his glasses onto the bridge of his nose, studying me, like he studied everything. There were words scribbled on the chalkboard, but he was notorious for writing illegibly. With my cheeks turning hot, I looked from his aware face over to the sea of tired faces. They might have been mocking me inside, but were too tired to say anything. Lucy was the only one who was not looking up at me. She was copying the words on the board, somehow able to make them out.
I walked away from the teacher and over to the empty seat next to Lucy, furiously scribbling, the tip of the pencil dropping audibly every time. I collapsed into the seat and slid my backpack to the side. She continued to copy the words on the board.
“As I was saying…”
I looked past Lucy and out the window. Her studious silhouette was more annoying than alluring. It obscured my vision. The gray light seemed very bright for autumn, but it might have just seemed bright because of the contrast. The shadow of her pencil moved down, down. The gray clouds rolled past, somewhere between black and white.
I sighed and rested my head on my hand. My eyes followed the teacher’s hand, with a trail of white markings following behind it on the black board. If I simply kept my eyes up, he would not question me.
“John, would you please come up to the board and explain this syllogism.”
My heart pounded, but my face only twinged. Could anyone see it twinge? I brought my head up and my hand down to my side. No one was staring at me, but all their ears faced me, all hunched over in their chairs.
I walked up to the board slowly, past all of the hunched backs, minding to their own things with busy fingers. They tried to cover up what was on the white pages in front of them, but they did not do a good job. I attempted to study what was on each page as I passed it. On one page was a caricature of the teacher, with a long, pointed nose and cylindrical glasses, sternly looking down at a pile of squashed ants, his outline black. This caricature was attempting to be funny, but I found it to be more ironic than anything. Knowing the artist, I knew that he would share it with the class afterwards, because he was the funny kid. On another page was a rather personal note, with a paper heart drawn on the bottom. Its artist reached for a red crayon on the edge of her desk, but it rolled onto the floor. She’d have to leave the heart colorless. I could only make out a few words on the page, which were “Steven” and “me.” She used “me” a lot. The rest of the pages were either blank or equally illegible as the markings on the board.
Behind the cylindrical glasses, his eyes seemed like they were miles from me, but very aware of my presence, like an observatory. He held the small stub of chalk loosely in the air. I reached for it up above me and was reminded of how short I was.
“Now, the first premise is that all men are mortal. Considering the context of the passage, what would be the other premise? And, further, what would be the conclusion?” He read straight from the textbook, which I had never read. His head moved on a pivot from the book that sat on the desk over to me, like an observatory. “You did read the passage, didn’t you?”
I could not tell if the man was on my side. I knew him since I was five. He was a good friend of my fathers and he came over frequently during my childhood, but I never grew to like him. My first impression was that he was a good friend of mine, by extension. But this quickly changed. One night, as he talked to my father deeply under the low light in the kitchen, I waddled by and said, “Hello, Mr. Carington, how are you today?” He was in the middle of a sentence that my father was trying to digest, using gesticulation to get a point across about my mom. My father, unlike other times, did not tell me, “John, he was in the middle of a sentence. That was very rude. Apologize.” And I would apologize. But not this time. My father simply sighed and covered his eyes with his hand.
Mr. Carington pushed me out of the way and told me to go to bed, in a voice quiet and demeaning. I could no longer look at him as a friend. When he pushed me aside, my feelings were also. I was a simple child. I was easily touched. But, for some reason, his gesture cut me so deeply, that I experienced my first sleepless night. How could he do that to me? He was the friendly adult, now turned unwelcome quest.
When Mom left Dad, he quickly left my life and I was glad for it, because I could no longer approach him. I turned inward and entered a shell of silence, just by a touch.
But, as coincidences go, he was now teaching me. I did not know he was a teacher, nor did my dad. Ten years went by and I enter my first high school class, only to see him standing in front of me, five hundred three gray hairs different.
I ran back home, to tell dad that I saw one of his old friends, Mr. Carton, I thought at the time. I so dreadfully wanted to remember his name, which is another reason I wanted to discuss the matter with my father. When I broke through the front door, with my backpack slung over one shoulder, I found my father passed out on the couch. Maybe it would have to wait.
Now, three years into high school, he turned from unwelcome guest to stern and calculated authority. I cared little for it.
In life, we make connections to certain people. Ask anyone and they will tell you that they have deep connections and affections for other people they have seen. These connections are completely arbitrary, it seems. As soon as who, what, where, and when are determined by chance, it seems, there is the emblazoned glance across the room at a party. She was a stranger, but I knew her, I knew her soul! There was something curious about her, something that I knew I knew.
Or, the connection takes time to grow on you. It starts off as a little seed in the fertile soil of childhood. Their personalities expand and contract into something larger than life. And you make a great connection to them and cannot stop thinking about them. I will not forget about him! I promise this to myself! The roots crawl all over the soil, until the tree cannot leave. These people more closely resemble angels and demons than people. They are inside you, they know you, and they will never forget you. You are certain they know what you are going through, even if that is false.
Sometimes we do not like these people. And I did not like Mr. Carington. But I could not forget about him. He took up a percentage of my brain activity. He was there since the beginning, touching, asking, shaking hands, and correcting.
I know there are these connections, which supersede anything like charisma or attraction. Take, for example, the story of the old man at the corner afflicted with burning curiosity. He saw a woman get off a bus in the 1950′s and look at him, as he stood at the corner and watched her powerfully, despite her ugliness. Thoughts immediately began racing through his mind. Who was she? Was she doing okay? Why was she on the bus? And would he ever see her again? She became a legend in his mind, a fixture of his reality. He never forgot about her, up until his deathbed, when the darkness took him and he figured everything out. He did not tell his wife. He did not tell his kids. He did not tell his friends. Yet, he told himself, over and over. Would he ever see her again?
He did not know it, but this mystery woman, in all her ugliness, was a silent and driving force behind all his actions. He hated her, he loved her, he didn’t know about her. He knew her face, but even that eroded with the passing of time, like Mr. Carington’s name eroded to Mr. Carton in mine.
I knew he hurt me in the past. But when I found out that he was going to be teaching me, I felt safe, certain, and happy. I didn’t like him, no, but I knew where he was. I could keep an eye on him, just to make sure that he was still there. If I could, I would take a rope and tie him to me and take him all through my life. I didn’t care for him, but I did. He was a driving force, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it.
“No, I didn’t read the passage.” I looked down at the floor.
“Ah, and why did you not read the passage, John?”
“Ah, and do you mind telling the class what you were so busy with that you were not able to fit in ten pages of reading and notes?” He gestured over to the class, and raised an eyebrow. His voice was nasally and piercingly undertoned.
“I was working.”
“Ah, working. Please go sit back down.” He faced the board again and began drawing more illegible markings. A metal rod pierced my heart, like it had before when he pushed me away. I reluctantly sat back next to the girl he assigned me.
I dug my long and dirty fingernail into a white, untouched eraser. The black dirt under my fingernail popped out as I cut into the eraser. I then pulled the eraser into two halves.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Lucy’s pencil cease movement. She set it down and looked straight forward. The gray light coming from the autumn outside obscured her eyes, but I felt like they were on me. Silent perception.
Suddenly, the class was all in a fury. Backpacks hit hard on the top of the desks, as books were fed into them. The bees rose and buzzed around the hive, all out through the door.
“Don’t forget to read, everyone! Who knows when there will be a pop quiz.” His voice was drowned out by the students, who completely ignored his words, because they heard them a thousand times before.
I shuffled out of class beside everyone else. Lucy was ahead of me. I did not think much of her. There was not much to think. She never said anything. She seemed scared to talk to people; boys especially. Everyone in the class despised her behind her back. She was studious and quiet and there was nothing more despicable than that. The girls said vicious things about her and the boys, naturally, followed the girls’ example. She was stuck-up, they’d say. I knew that they were not being fair, but I did nothing to stop the words. All I did was not say anything. Other than that, I found her to be a particularly dull person. A girl, too. I would never dare approach her.
I was less hated, because I was more pitiable. I was more ignored than her, too. She received the bile of everyone’s attention while I, in turn, received nothing of any kind. Neither she nor I were invited to parties. I didn’t care. I had work to do. My father lived for nothing else but beer and he would die by nothing else. I didn’t work for him. I worked for me. If I didn’t work now, I would probably not be able to go to college. The rest of the extended family might want to pull me down to their level and have me not go, but I don’t want to go down their path. My cousins haven’t seemed to benefit from any of their own decisions, so I’m not going to make any of them.
There was a little bookshop that I worked at. My dad was going to die any day now. I feared more for me than him. I didn’t know where I would go. I prayed to God that it would happen after I became an adult.
“Where you going, Lazy Lucy?” The girl spit her words out at Lucy as she past her in the hall. What the girl said next I don’t wish to repeat, but it brushed over my ears.
The pain of the remark made me acutely aware of Lucy’s presence. Her entire being changed from dullness to acidity, like pity will so often do.
There was something strong about the girl, something unchanging. She was mocked and ridiculed so often and so viciously, but she remained rigid, like a rock. Was there something under her stone face?
Disregarding the people it is supposed to serve, life continued going, like the old grandfather clock.
It was fall still, but a different year in a different place. My father’s life stopped ticking and I was at college, walking to class. A beard had grown on my face and I felt strength in my body. I knew that, someday, the strength would weaken into inability. But for now, I had it and I would cherish it.
People now gathered around me, too happy with their own strength to be bitter. I somehow became the one who made all the jokes, even though my previous life never contained humor.
She was there, too, a butterfly floating distantly around me. She was more loved in college and, to many girls, was actually enviable. She was a different person.
At my fraternity, she came and was asking for her boyfriend, Tyler. I was sitting on the couch watching tv, when I heard a knock on the door. It must be the pizza man, I thought. I walked up to the black door and saw through the window that it was Lucy.
“Hello, Lucy. You here for Tyler?” She did not know me, only my face. Her hair was tied loosely in a ponytail and she was wearing a black and white checkered dress, holding her purse with two hands.
“Yes. Is he here?”
I quickly noticed that she was looking for him, because they were going to go on a date that night. Clearly, Tyler had neglected to go and pick her up, so she came looking for him.
“He’s actually not. He’s at a, uh, football game.”
“Oh. Well, thanks.” I knew that as soon as I closed the door, she would turn her back and hold back tears as she walked back to her sorority.
I closed the door. What a jerk. I didn’t like Tyler, anyways. This poor girl, Lucy. She was always dealing with something.
What a beautiful girl. I never noticed until then. She was suddenly vibrant and ripe, standing there in a her black and white checkered dress, amidst the gray fall. I couldn’t believe it. I simply couldn’t believe it. She was born out of a different era, the 50′s.
Two weeks later, I saw her at a party across the room. She was trying to get Tyler’s attention, but he was too busy talking to some girl. Lucy even began waving her hand in his direction. She even started yelling his name. He didn’t listen and her delicate white arm brushed down the side of her white shirt. She gave out a little giggle and looked in my direction. Our eyes quickly met. I could feel something.
It’s not love at first sight, but it can be love in a glance.
She covered her eyes, concealing her sadness and making it appear like she was laughing instead. Three of her friends came behind her and patted her on the back, because they didn’t like Tyler. They then looked at me, noticing that I had been zoning in on Lucy, so I quickly averted my eyes and turned.
For the weeks that followed, she was on my mind every minute of the day. I couldn’t cut to the fact of the matter. I replayed the experience in my mind. I walked over the same land time and time again, trying to figure out what it all meant. But the words on the board were illegible.
I was nearly driven mad. I could not get her out of my mind. She was a fixture of my reality. I wanted to tie her to me, so she would never leave my side. We were two snowflakes on Christmas Eve, diving and swirling around each other, always planning, but never quite able to reach a set destination.
I wish I could know her better, because I didn’t even know she felt the same way. Did she know that the guy she was with was a jerk? I would like to tell her how much she doesn’t deserve him and that she deserves someone better. But I couldn’t just outright say that she deserved me, could I? Oh, I saw her in high school. I knew her in high school! Why didn’t I make a move then? What was wrong with me? She was right there and all I had to do was say hello. I didn’t forget about her. I never forgot about her. How deep was my affection for someone I didn’t even know?
Over the next few months, as I saw her struggle to stay faithful in her relationship with Tyler, I struggled to make her more unfaithful. She needed to get out of that relationship and her friends and I knew that. They knew I liked her and so, every few nights, she would spew her heart and guts on the floor in front of them and, as directed by me, they would casually say, “Well, what about John? What do you think of John?”
When I asked the girls to report back to me what she said then, they said they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. But, I told them I wanted to know. So, they said, “Well, she said that you are nice and all, but you seemed too shy.”
That was my next challenge. I would no longer be shy, no matter how hard it was to stop it. How could I not do what I felt was right? She needed someone. I could feel it in her. She was empty and I knew her needs and I so desperately wanted to fulfill them for her. That is true love. It is true love to see how someone else is struggling and having something inside you telling you, “You need to give that to them at all costs. You need to intervene and help them.” Love is jealous in this; it will not stop until it has mediated on behalf of the object of the affection. Love is black and white in this; there is only one way to satisfy the itch it gives the afflicted and that is to pursue it to the ground, until it is no longer possible to go any further. Love is not gray. Love is not confusing or mysterious, truly. It is unsatisfying when jealous and burning when necessary. It is calculated and there is only one answer, like a logical premise, to the floodgates of passion and the stampedes of fire and that is to know the source of it and to drink from that source freely. It is the most obvious mystery to us. The conclusion is known right when the premise is given, but it is still so hard to make out, as creatures. It is a delicious wine and the flavor is known, but the flavor cannot be described.
Do not go searching for the flower, before you are ready. You will trample it under your clumsy feet and there will be no satisfaction, although it will be tempting and you cannot stop what you set in motion. For the love of one to another is like an ocean. The decisive beginning is the storm of affection and the foolishness of youth is a sword to the chest.
I was at the door of her sorority, with flowers in my hand, and I knocked on the door. I told myself that I would remain calm and reserved, but my heart wanted to leap out of its stall. I could not stop it. It beat and galloped, until I gripped it, realizing the limited power I had in the situation. I could not do it! I threw the flowers down on the threshold of the house with the black door and ran off the porch to my car. My car sputtered off and the door opened, an innocent Lucy standing over the flowers. She picked them up, with a confused look on her face.
Thank God, I didn’t write a note with my name on it.
Three months later, the Holidays were upon me. Half the college stayed, but my home didn’t exist. For those who stayed, my fraternity had a party, inviting the sorority over. Tyler asked Lucy for her forgiveness, blithely, hoping not to lose her, because she was something too valuable to lose. Tyler didn’t apologize for anything, though, and his actions perfectly reflected this. It was all vague. Lucy was not satisfied. She wanted to get out of the relationship, someway, somehow, all then.
We had become friends in the past three months. She needed someone to be close to and he was not at all. I played the friend, but I wanted to play more than that.
It was getting late in the night and I was playing the wallflower. I figured that I would slip out. I saw Lucy getting pushed towards the door, with Tyler’s hand on her shoulder. She was waving to one of her friends, who was shaking her head in a way that Tyler would not notice. I saw it and told myself, “What is the point of being here if I won’t be able to stare at her any longer? I will leave, too.”
I curled into my little car like a ball, closing the frozen metal door. I brought my eyes up to put the key in the ignition, but then I saw her getting into the car with Tyler. They were parked right in front of me. The back window of his car was plastered with white snow.
I looked up, asking for something to tell me what I should do. The only thing I saw in the cold black sky was the perpetually falling snowflakes, the pattern of the sky constantly changing. That is all that answered my questions. I looked forward again and saw his car, with the rear end red lights coming to life under a thin cover of snow. Why was she with him and not with me?
I felt a pain in my gut as the snow fell off the car when it moved away. I shivered and wanted to vomit.
Life continued moving on, disjointed, with the chapters blending in to each other. I was in the middle of a new chapter, only to find, suddenly, that a chapter had ended.
She was sitting across from me under the low light of a kitchen table. It was winter and we were wearing the sweaters we bought for each other. We were eating soup, comfortable with the mutual silence.
I stopped eating my soup, set my spoon down, and realized that a chapter I so desired in my life had come about, without me noticing. I didn’t know I wanted it, but it came upon me in a faint glimpse, and now I not only craved it, but had it as well.
I saw her hair and her face on a geometric plane. She bowed her head, bringing the spoon to her mouth, unaware I was watching.
I was unaware that I was watching. Then, I became aware. She was beautiful. She was very beautiful. I knew her. How could I continue on in life, ignoring how special she was, simply because her presence had become familiar?
“I love you.” I was smiling like an idiot, with tears melting down my cheeks.
She looked up like a deer hearing a twig break. The soup in her mouth went down her throat, her adam’s apple catching.
She choked it down and then smiled and gave me the love sign, with moist eyes. Her skin was so white in the winter, her hair so black.
“Do you understand now, Son?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, when the day comes for you to understand, it might be too late. But, as a father, I simply have to tell you this; do not love until you are ready. The mortal mystery of it will grip your heart and the decisiveness of it will cause you to pursue something you ought not to pursue. Do not awaken love. Let it awaken you. Only then, will the normal girl suddenly be very special.”
“What do you mean that love is black and white?”
“Why do I even bother telling you things? That was the whole point of me telling you a story. And I spent a lot of time memorizing what I’d say. Now go to bed.”