The trees folded their hands above me, branches interlaced. There was nothing but the sound of my footfalls on the path, the snap of a twig beneath my shoe, the far off rustling of a bird amongst the leaves. The sky hung blank and aloof above me, not threatening rain but no bright vista, just a cloudy apathetic stare. Perhaps it would speckle me with mist later. Or perhaps not.
It didn’t really matter. My feet walked this trail through the woods, but I wasn’t really. I was walking down another trail, down the side of a mountain in late summer. Green curled around us on all sides, trees and bushes and tall plants. The others in the group were up ahead, laughing and talking amongst themselves.
I walked alongside him as usual, but today the silence that stretched between us wasn’t the normal, comfortable lull. Because this was the last day. The goodbye was tapping us on the shoulder, trying to catch our eyes, hanging onto us like a tired child who wants to go home. And I hadn’t told him.
He turned to me, but with the hesitancy of someone afraid to ask a question. “Since I’m leaving,” he said. “I might as well ask.”
And this is the moment I live in. This space, these frozen seconds, my heartbeat in my ears. Does he know? Has he guessed? Is he about to ask me what I think he is?
I’m silent beside him in this moment, but my heart in my chest shouts.
I loved him the moment I first saw him. There was a group of people standing near the coffee bar, and I didn’t know a single one of them. These were the kinds of things I hated. What should I say? Should I walk up to them and introduce myself? Would that be weird? If I didn’t I would just end up standing in the middle of the room silently, and that would most definitely be weird. But none of that mattered, because he turned around and immediately smiled at me, like I was an expected friend. Never had I ever felt so at home in such an instant with someone I had never met before.
Did I love him then? Or was it a few weeks later, on a freezing Sunday morning in February? I had driven from my cousin’s house, which I was housesitting, and I had forgotten my gloves. Alaska winter mornings could be sharp with cold, and it the temperatures were sub-zero that day. I could barely grip the steering wheel because the air burned along my fingers with cold. The sky had just begun to lighten, even though it was past 8. The mountains shimmered white and purple against the deep blue sky. The air glittered with frost, every exhaled breath a cloud around my face.
I had parked the car, and walked into the little coffee shop/meeting room area next to the church lobby. I just needed a cup of hot coffee to warm up my numb fingers and wake me up. I huddled inside my coat, as I grabbed a Styrofoam cup and started pouring coffee into it. People were milling all around, standing or sitting around square tables scattered throughout the room, drinking coffee and chatting before church started. And then he was standing on the other side of the little coffee cart. I expected he would walk right past, or maybe give me a smile and a wave, or say a brief hello as he got his own coffee.
Instead, he caught my eye and greeted me by name. He remembered everything I had told him before--about my family, about how I had moved there recently, about the classes I was taking at the university. I don’t even remember the conversation, just the feeling of looking into his brown eyes and being astonished. I was so used to being a ghost. So many times people had just glossed right over me. How many times had I said hello to someone and seen the blank look in their eyes that told me that they had no clue who I was, even though I had known them for months? But he...he saw me.
This is what I remember as he turned to me on the mountain trail. I hadn’t told him I love him yet. Even though it’d been almost a year. I’ve argued with myself so many times, lying on my bed, staring at the slanted ceiling. Do I tell him? What if it ruins everything?
“I might as well ask…” he says and I can’t even look at him. My heart is so loud. Surely my thoughts, my feelings, are written all over my face.
And then he says, “Have you finished writing your book yet?”
This is not the question. Everything inside me deflates. I pause too long in responding.
“No, not yet…” I say with a laugh, and mutter some more things without my writing. But in my head I’m wondering if that was what he meant to ask. Why did he hesitate? Why did he phrase it that way?
The path is ending. I can see the trees falling away, the dirt turning to gravel to asphalt. Do I tell him anyways? The words are caught in my throat. I can taste the shape of them in my mouth. He’s leaving. Do I let him go without telling him?
But it’s too late. We have caught up to our friends, who are hanging out around the parked car.
We drive back to the Sears’ parking lot where we all met. We all clamber out of the one car and stand with the sky bright above us and the mountains framing the horizon. The others say goodbye, wishing Patrick good luck with his studies and safe travels. And then it’s just me, standing with my hands in my coat pockets. My sister and brother are sitting in the car waiting for me to drive them home.
“Well, this is it, I guess,” he says.
Tell him! My heart screams. A folded letter is crumpled inside my fist inside my coat pocket. It’s such a simple action. Such a short distance.
“I guess so,” I say. “Good luck.”
He nods at me and opens his car door.
I nod back and get into my car. I watch him drive out of the parking lot, the Sears building looming gray in the background, like it is its own blocky mountain.
There are three things that make me sad. Forest trails, empty parking lots, and the white door with a diamond window-pane at my aunt’s house.
That was the last place I saw him. The last time. Christmas break. I had thrown a Christmas party, because he was going to be back from university. Quiet little me. I had provided food, set up games, invited all the people It was a grand time, staying up late, laughing at each other’s attempts at charades.
I was going to tell him. I had made up my mind. I had spent five months regretting that last day. I still had the letter. All I had to do was hand it over to him. I just needed one moment. Just one. Just a handful of seconds when everyone else wasn’t paying attention.
But then the hour had grown late and the dark had curled around and settled down around the house for hours. The snow had become hard-packed and icy, sparkling sharply in the moonlight. He shrugged his coat on, and opened that front door. I stood in the threshold of the living room, at the base of the stairs that lead up to the loft. He held the door half open, the cold spilling in. My hand was frozen in my pocket, my tongue numb behind my lips. The living room was as bright as a stage, everyone’s attention turned to him there at the door.
“Well, I have to head out guys. Um...good luck with...everything, I guess,” he said, with a laugh.
A few weeks later, I got a text. I had asked how things were going. He responded with an update. But I could only see a few words. I started dating this wonderful girl, and … I flung my phone onto my bed and went downstairs.
Now, I finally reached the end of the path I had been walking. Here there’s just a tiny little waterfall from a tiny little stream that dribbles over the edge of an overhang. There’s a little space behind that you can walk behind, not deep enough to be called a cave. I stick my hand underneath the water. Such a little waterfall, but it still falls with such force and such cold. On this early fall day the water is already cold enough to numb my fingers. I stand there for a minute, letting the water splash across my open, upturned palm. Three years and still no one has seen me the way he did. I was used to being the ghost, but now he is the one who haunts my wakeful thoughts.