By Mike Lee
Drawings © Bren Luke
Define this whirlwind: lips touch after that moment at the precipice when verbal and visual relation confront the desire for completion, expressing emotional need and physical desire with a singular act that makes me think eternal. Online met, Syracuse and the City separate us and we could not get the time to meet until discovering we would be in Oregon. During the intense conversation at a café the snow began, reminding me of Manhattan in January when the big storms come roaring in. We stepped outside, waiting for our ride as the snow accumulated.
That first kiss, momentarily brushing lips before wrapping hands around necks, open mouthed, deeper, is unplanned—just boom here we are with nothing else to say, and left with the accomplishment of closing a circle. Assume she thinks the same; tells me later she had stopped thinking, listening to the music playing in her head. Her pouting, delicate lips are too small to trace, but I cannot help but pull her lower lip down with my thumb. Nose scrunched up, flesh tickled, batting eyelids, eyes sparkling, reflected under the streetlight. Skin so clean, white, not porcelain but cream; she blushes easily, wiggles her nose. Sweet, not innocent or virginal, but in the manner of presenting herself without attributes, unpretentiously. Cute, but naturally so, appearance younger than age; scars kept to herself, left uncollected on every table she rises from. Wears pink without irony; heartbreakingly redheaded, achingly so with each strand falling over her face.
The snow melts on her glasses lenses, droplets obscuring walnut shade, staring up, shivering, soft lips lifted parted slightly. Appraising me, her situation; open doors, daring to peer in, but hesitation at reaching out. Hands in mittens, crocheted, brace on wet black leather motorcycle jacket, slipping softly, wanting to hold and hesitant, perhaps waiting for me.
I grasp her cheeks with gloved hands. Gently, communicating to her I honor the softness, beauty, herself. Kiss her again as her arms slip to her sides, yielding instead of indicating passivity, standing on toes, pushing her mouth as if seeking a redemptive connection while December snow dusts hair and coats.
I dream of whippoorwills calling in the woods behind the house I lived in with my mother and grandparents as a child, before Mom found a job in Texas, moving a month after I turned 15 to a different world, new adjustments which decades later I continue to fine tune, often from frustration. I have thought little of those woods: lady slippers poking through the ground amid pine needles, wild holly, oaks and pines, terrain sloping to boulder-strewn Appalachian summit. Yet I have triggered a memory, boy alone staring at the constellations amid the forest rising around me as a basilica framing window to the stars.
Awaken, our bodies warm, having found the places where to meet. Under a black comforter and a plaid wool blanket, my left arm under her pillow, the right over her waist, under covers, against skin, hand resting near hers, curled in a half-open fist. I slip my hand underneath hers, positioning thumb against the back of her palm, and hold.
She sleeps with an open mouth, as if prepared for a conjoining embrace, but I want her to sleep. In the silence of this room, the only sound the silky crinkle of snow falling against the window above the bed. No whippoorwills calling except in dream. I watch her sleep, feeling the rhythm of her breathing, rising stomach against my arm, and kiss her shoulder with gratitude. I miss North Carolina. Yes, I miss those mountains now invoked here while finding my heart so close to hers.
Morning accompanied by big dogs barking and automobile engines idling. The house belongs to my old as dirt friend, David, but today it is ours. I wanted to think so, taking up on his comment that what’s mine is yours when he invited me to stay. She agreed to meet in town, having traveled far from home, Amtrak cross-country, stacks of trade paperbacks on the empty seat beside her; me intended as a way station of dinner and talking before on to Vancouver and the Trans-Canada, gifting to herself the time and the experience, money saved for years, taking a leave of absence from her job, a solitary excursion which hours ago became temporarily diverted. She worked it out so that she has another day before she can get the next train to Canada, before the Amtrak pass expires on her return to her home in Syracuse.
Therefore, our home is a ramshackle three-bedroom David always seems to be working on with his never-finished improvements, painted beige in a subdivision at the foot of a grassy and treeless slope, sharply rising, perfect to roll down in summer and slide in winter snow.
Remnants of her warmth, her scent, remain where her body has been. My palm brushes against the sheet, my eyes close. Hours before, making love in near silence, wordlessly kissing lips that could not be traced, conjoining intertwined connecting reaching across miles from home, holding tight, desperation.
I rise, sliding on boxers and a t-shirt. The house is hot and dry, David leaving pans of water in front of the floor grates. The wood floor is warm, though the bathroom tile is not. After washing up, I enter the kitchen.
Morgan is framed by light, reflected from sun to snow. She is wearing a blue velour bathrobe; hair pinned up, facing the window above the twin porcelain sinks between two unfinished cupboards, watching kids slide and snowboard down the slope.
“Morgan,” I say softly. I don’t know what else to say, feeling I am in church.
I touch her shoulder, placing my hand on the bathrobe. I kiss her at the nape, lingering while Morgan takes my hand from her shoulder, putting my fingers to her lips, head nodding back and forth while caressing.
Coffee: light with organic milk and, judging from the packaging, boutique sugar. Fortunately, David isn’t cheap and while asleep he remains generous. Morgan and I are spoiled on Starbucks, therefore mutually immensely appreciative across red checkered tablecloth in the kitchen. We grasp our mugs with both hands. We share silence at the table, just stare, shy, or in shock that we have fucked. I have a growing misgiving at this silence, thinking that, as writers, we communicate best by writing sight unseen, tapping away on laptop keyboards, and meeting last night we talked ourselves hoarse. Self-confidence taking a hit, ebbing, staring into walnut eyes, thinking that this is a sign we cannot relate in person. Her eyes peer into mine, faraway, albeit beyond that remaining inscrutable. The thought crosses my mind that I am missing something, not getting it.
Morgan leans forward and kisses my cheek. “You need to shave,” she says, pulling back, cheeks adding color. “I love a man, but you’re scratchy.” Morgan tilts her head, lips curving to acknowledge a smile. I start to relax, but my doubt remains. I do her bidding, rise to shower and shave.
For all the years I have known David, years adding up to decades strung together like abacus beads, one sliding over to account for the first ten marked on the calendar, then another, he has constantly referred to himself as a technopeasant. This is only accurate when it comes to his music collection, all vinyl, hundreds of LPs neatly arranged on custom built oak shelves in his living room. Any piece of music not pressed in that form—and increasingly so for more than twenty years—he loads into his Macintosh hard drive.
As neatly presented as his rows of plastic-covered record albums are, David eschews organization. He knows where to find what he is looking for. However, I do not, and it takes a while to find something for my mood. Want to show off for Morgan, and I know David has the Karen Dalton record. I find Scott Walker’s Scott 3 instead, and put the record on the B&O turntable, with the vintage Marantz tube set-up that David has maintained for nearly as long as I have known him. I lounge in David’s leather chair, in my pullover hoodie, black jeans stuffed into motorcycle boots, listening, daydreaming while Morgan showers.
David finally comes out of his room, dressed to work on an art project he has going in his garage, speaks excitedly to me about it while knocking about the kitchen. He is in the garage when Morgan comes out.
I am replaying side one and I sit watching her stand at the turntable, looking intently. Morgan turns to look at me, her expression what I term a little Glaswegian: gloomy—gray and stark, and wanting to get out.
Finally, she speaks, softly, her voice distant, revealing.
“She stands there, in her fire escape in the sky.”
The afternoon: she leads me, mitten grasping glove, probably looking from a distance like Seventh Seal final scene, slipping in trampled snow up the ridge as kids, teens, parents cavort and slide down to the subdivision below. The sky has returned to gray, but it isn’t so cold. Scarves, not hats. Morgan in earmuffs, pink and fluffy, matching her scarf.
We stand, watching people climb the ridge to fling themselves down on cardboard, plastic, and metal. An hour segues toward two.
We talk about bands, interspersed with Burt’s Bees waxen against chapped lips kisses. Although 35, she looks so young in pink, especially with the earmuffs. I remain significantly older. That fact worries me, but I hide it with the bravado inherent of borrowing a plastic saucer. Arms, legs wrapped around me, skidding, bumping down the icy slope, Morgan screaming, laughing until I lose my grip on the straps and we tumble in a human avalanche.
We linger on the ground, me afraid to get up and show my age while I assume Morgan stares at the fire escape in the cloudy sky.
Finally, she turns over, smiling more broadly than in the morning, arms on either side, her face close to mine, her glasses and earmuffs askew. “C’mon,” she says, pulling me up. Morgan picks up the saucer. “They want this back.”
We ascend the ridge, and I am reminded of my age and how out shape I am, but endure.
We return and David makes dinner. Afterward we go to a factory by the river to hear an industrial music show. We watch, standing at the iron railing with David as bemused spectators, looking down, minds elsewhere. I still view it as our house, but it also David’s, and where I come from we make an effort to be appreciative of kindness, despite my longing for melody.
I wake to Morgan watching me sleep. I grab her with both hands.
Age has its advantages. No, scratch that—experience. Remain scared, however.
On the drive to the train station, Morgan holds up her phone, takes a self portrait, and sends it to mine. I sit in the back seat, looking at her looking at me through the screen, glancing up to dark eyes framed with black plastic frames. David didn’t mind that Morgan moved the rear view mirror to stare at me. Texans like us prefer to look through the side mirror or to the road ahead. What is in that mirror appears smaller than actuality. As for the road ahead, it is straight, ends when it ends, yet we are the curious kind, interested in that which lies beyond the horizon. Pioneers, migrating, always moving on.
I want her to stay.
Morgan is a French Canadian New Englander, some Irish, some Italian, maybe a wrong turn at Lisbon, Mohawk balancing on steel beams high in the New York City sky; different and distinct, reserved, cool. I am hot, fraught with anxiety, fearful of insult and hurt, of not measuring up and being nothing more than a station stop before dream vacation on the Trans-Canada, two-night stand as a postcard she might share with her friends, nothing more than that.
Yet I sense she has a Southern soul. Writes like one and she watches me sleep, reserving the New England standoffishness, unveiling when it matters. Morgan scratches. Morgan bites. Morgan throws herself in with desperation. Why? I want to know. I want her to tell me more about herself—where that comes from. Not leave me with an impression I could be wildly wrong about. I want her to know me, too.
Inside the station we take photos of the neo-Italian Renaissance interior. David tries to get us together to stand for a picture, but we demur. I fear that Morgan is beginning the process of separation. Kissing goodbye is not the same; David is watching.
I never saw someone off on a train before. It’s not at all similar to an airport or waving goodbye to relatives from a driveway. I can’t quite place why, other than maybe because it’s slow, on a fixed rail, and in Morgan’s case, a long journey ahead and far too much time to think.
Aftermath: three days of David and I listening to records, reading a book to review, helping him with a slide presentation for an upcoming gallery show, uploading onto his website. We try not to talk about Morgan. When we do, it is terse.
We drive to the mountains. I see Mount St. Helens. I am distracted, thinking that I am too macho, too old for her. I tried to convey otherwise. I get hurt, historically often and easily. I respond defensively by becoming too hard to know, reticent; unapproachable is an old issue, been told of that frequently.
David chooses this as the time to bring Morgan up. “You haven’t heard from her, have you?” Sometimes he cares; sometimes he projects the experience of his failed relationships onto me with passive aggressive nastiness. I continue to respond defensively.
“No, I haven’t. She said she was going to be busy with friends in Sea-Tac and had a day in Vancouver—also said she might go to Victoria.”
“So, she would be on the train today. Interesting that she didn’t think to let you know she made it on the train okay.”
“She told me she would try to call when she got to Kamloops.”
“Yeah, Kamloops. Don’t you know someone there?”
“Not anymore. She’s in Indiana now.” We let the pause last for a couple of downhill curves.
David asks, “Did she tell you she loved you?”
“Yes, that last night. She was—er, crying.”
“You know what that means.”
“Yes, I know.” Shut up, David.
“You’re obsessed. Again.”
“I fall in love with every guitar and every bass drum. There, I said it for you.”
“We are at the times in our lives when our peers begin to die not by choice. We are 50, beyond the midpoint of our lives. Morgan is nearly half your age.”
At a crossing, David adds, “Should I say more? Oh, there you are again, with the look of the man who is not there.” He returns his attention to the road, nodding.
Even so, one has to admire David’s coolness in his precision and clarity in his language; I am heat and light, and talk fast with twang and syrup, stumbling over words, skinning adjectives and descriptive nouns, bruising verbiage. Reflects our class differences—rich kid artist, trailer park boy street Marxist with not a helluva lot of an oeuvre. However, we both remain deeply insecure, thus our alliance.
I let it slide and stare out the passenger side window, lost in my thoughts, just like the old days with David in Texas. Back then it was a 1970 Buick with a four-barrel carb, though this Volvo shall do.
After dinner, David passive aggressively brings her up again by playing Big Star. Morgan wore their t-shirt when she left. I get the hint while sipping his gourmet coffee; my heart is rising and sinking at once, me wanting to be elsewhere.
I listened to Big Star and Alex Chilton as a kid because I knew how it felt to never get the girl, and now, after getting to know him, I listen to songs like September Gurls and it hits so much harder. One starts to understand that “When I get to bed late at night” is actually more like a Pretty Ballerina lyric, “close your eyes and she’ll be there.”
I get it, David. Alex would do these pop genius things about when you come across someone you instinctively feel connected to, but deep down you realize that, for whatever reason, it is not going to happen. Failure visualized as an artist’s palette, counting off the colors squeezed on the board: missed connections, bad timing, impossible geography, age differences, incompatibility of moods, mediocre lover, probably has someone else in mind always someplace else, the list is endless, unwinds. She may be everything you ever wanted—but, no, sorry. Go to bed late at night. Close your eyes.
I love you, oh never mind. That’s how Alex talked. I now know the context. That’s how we men, after being boys for a while, sometimes too long, talk when we realize dream baby love of our life is a mountain moving without us.
Love and lost. Love never attained. Love you could have had if you had shut the fuck up and listened. Yes, shut up, David. You too, Alex.
That night I sleep on the left side of the bed.
I stare at Morgan’s picture on my cell phone.
As we get ready to leave for the airport, David tells me he took a photo of Morgan and me going up the ridge. He sends it to my email. From my phone, I forward the photo to her.
When the plane lands at JFK, I turn on my phone to check my account. No response. I’m guessing she is still in the Rockies, out of wireless range, or she is busy enjoying her journey. Or asleep, lips slightly parted, wrapped in a blanket, head against pillow, against window economy class thousands of miles, the train rumbling toward the Canadian prairies.
No, it’s the fourteenth, I realize. Morgan arrives in Syracuse on the fifteenth. No texts. No email. She doesn’t update her blog. I write her a letter, trying not to sound needy. I tell Morgan I love her. I wish her well.
Vancouver to Toronto is five days, another to Montreal. She’s staying there for an extra day, then Amtrak to Syracuse. I check the schedule online once, telling myself Morgan gifted me two nights. That’s what I was good for. I try to accept.
I force myself to sleep. I remain curled on the left side of the bed, fingers spreading over an empty space.
I write Morgan a poem.
I check blog, Facebook, email. Nothing. I go to the movies intending to leave the phone turned off until the next morning, afraid.
In the empty space beside me on the bed, I line up the books I have that Morgan wrote she liked. I do not believe in my power to conjure, to change fate. Not my job. Never was.
I print off her self-portrait, and stare. Morgan’s hair falls across her face, behind and in front of her frames, her eyes expressing both weariness and appraisal, judging possibly. I dwell on the paper image, questioning whether Morgan is tired, sad, or about to break into a smile; showing me who she is, paring back personal boundaries for me to see what lies underneath. Was she indicating leaving or staying? Though at first I wanted to believe seduction, I interpret from the formation of her lips that she wants to kiss before doubt forms. Guess she was telling me good bye. Damn.
I lie back to face the bland oblivion of the ceiling. Taking a cue from Pretty Ballerina—close your eyes and Morgan is there. I focus on her eyes, brows curving. I imagine again my thumb pulling down her lower lip. When I do I realize I’ve forgotten the sensation, confusing it with other memories.
I drift off. Morgan is no longer in color. She is now in grays, pixilated, fading.
I wake to Sunday morning. Make coffee. Take a shower. Shave. Get dressed, though I really don’t know why I should bother. Have a book review on a book I like, but I decide on the avoidance ritual. I do that less now that writing has become an imperative. It is intensive labor that requires accepting failure often. Sure, things falter like horses in the stretch. In rejection, it is a form note where you know—many novice writers and those in denial are unaware of this—the first reader did not get past the opening sentence, at best the opening paragraph. That’s a tough thing to take, but take it you must. You have to like what you are doing to put up with the negative. However, it was my responsibility to have worked harder, earlier. Now I work like a bastard to catch up with those years with book reviews, interviews, and articles for magazines I would brag about if I had actually read them. Morgan laughed when I told her that. She was delicate with my snark, did not find it at all arrogant or condescending toward my self-described craft. Wonder, though, if she considered stuff like that on the train ride, concluding I was bitter. Women are not attracted to bitter—or old.
Add Elvis Costello to the list: I hang around dying to be tortured. You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard.
I am now beyond belief.
Shut up, Elvis.
With my mood half in aging angst mourning, the other portion in self-deluded denial, I look at Morgan’s blog.
“I have another week,” she says. “I stopped talking myself out of this in Rochester.”
Morgan in battered riding boots, black pea coat and beret, wheeled duffel, shoulder bag beside her on the curb, cab pulling away.
She looks at my apartment building. “No fire escape?”
“Interior stairwells.” Pause. “Disappointed?”
Her expression is as it was in the car, until eyes close for an embrace. We kiss and look to the sky, catching the initial flurries of the snowstorm rolling in, the wind swirling about us, holding hands, hers in mittens grasping mine in gloves.