“Do you think some people are meant to stay in your life forever?”
“We’ve really run out of things to talk about, haven’t we?” He said.
“That’s not true, I just don’t wanna talk about the past anymore. Please, what do you think, are there people meant to stay in your life forever?”
“I hope so, but what do I know?”
“You’re the one who said that to me, when we were kids.”
He let his face relax into a smile and nodded. I looked into his brown eyes, like two mud puddles. They were the only thing about him that had remained the same. When he first came in he asked if I liked his new beard, and I mustered a big smile and nodded. The truth is, it wasn’t supposed to be there, it was like seeing the house you grew up in but discovering weeds had grown everywhere.
He blushed when he saw I was looking at the beard again.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be gone soon,” he said.
“No, no, really, I, I like it,” I stuttered, “just have to get used to it.”
“Sure you do,” the man said with a wry grin, “anyway, it’s not my choice. Some things happen outside of our control. Like the impulse to grow this beard in the first place, who knows why I suddenly wanted one? Anyway, it doesn’t matter because, actually… no, not yet.”
“I’ll tell you later.”
I nodded, wondering what he was trying to get at. We fell into a strained silence.
His face was gaunt, his cheekbones looked sharp enough to cut through the rickety beige desk we were seated against. His exposed forearms were thin and tanned. His muddy eyes reflected nothing.
There was something strange about him. It was like he was disappearing from this world, leaving behind this empty shell of himself, like air hissing out of a punctured tire, and the only thing anchoring him was his warm smile. When he was little he rarely smiled, didn’t have much reason to, so I craved to make him happy. Back then it was because it felt strange to see a kid my own age so miserable, now, it was a matter of life or death.
“Look me in the eyes,” I told him.
He did as he was told. His pupils remained blank, two cracked, dried-up puddles of mud lodged into his eye sockets. They looked fake, as if his face was playing a trick on me. I was seated across an illusion. A corpse.
“Weird,” the man said, “I can barely see myself in your eyes. Must be the lighting.”
“Must be,” I said quietly.
We had gone to the lake once, in the tiny window of time when the sun came out, and I had used his eyes as mirrors to spread sunscreen on my face. Now, however, the mirrors were broken, drained of whatever property had made them so warm and deep and beautiful back then. They were brick walls now, and I could only hope there was something left on the other side.
“Look, the snow’s starting to pile against the windows,” he said.
“No I’m used to it, everything here is smaller. And we’re always being buried with snow.”
“I know, I used to live here, remember?”
I was claustrophobic, wasn’t I? As a child, I had every phobia I could name, which was a lot because I spent so much time reading.
I was always worried people were hiding things from me. Getting to know a character in a book, even a real person through their non-fiction was easier than digging through the pile of layers that make up people. He was different, simpler. At least he used to be, now, there was a strange black serpent circling around him in the air, threatening to destroy me if I got too close.
I thought back to when we met, in that little park, before it was covered in weeds. I was sitting on a swing, reading, and he came and sat on the one furthest from me. He had a runny nose. Later he would say he kept away from me that day because he didn’t want to spread his cold, but I always suspected he was just scared to talk to me.
We kept seeing each other at the park, me sitting on the left-most swing and him sitting on the right-most one, and it became a routine. There would be days when he was too sick to come, or I was too anxious, but we were always pulled back to that little park.
I began to worry that it was all in my head, that this routine of ours didn’t even exist, it was all just coincidence. I read a lot of fiction back then, maybe I was making things up in my head. I considered finding a new place to read. Then, one day, in the park, the boy asked me if we could be friends. I almost laughed in his face, his voice was so nervous and sincere. I told him we could be, and he smiled at me for the first time.
We didn’t form any sort of bond right away, I was focused on my life and he was focused on his. We grew separately at first, drawing closer together over time like two plants that can’t stand on their own. I always thought I was sick back then, diagnosing myself with every disease I could pronounce. I was busy fighting these diseases, swinging a fake sword at fake enemies.
One day we were sitting next to each other on the swings and the boy lurched forward and fell to the ground as if his whole body turned to lead. I panicked and fell to the ground next to him. We stayed like that for a long time, he splayed on the ground and me kneeling next to him, looking around the empty park like it was the middle of the ocean, searching for something solid to grab onto. My head was spinning, every part of my body was flooded with panic. I forced myself to take a deep breath.
Then, after what could have been five seconds or five hours, a thought sank into my head and made its way across my whole body. I was feeling empathy, possibly for the first time. My own hands were just as pale as the boys'. It was as if our bodys’ were connected, and I realized that if I could share his pain, take some of it away from him, I would.
I was relieved, because just the other day I had begun wondering if I was a psychopath, but this rush of empathy seemed to suggest otherwise. I stopped diagnosing myself after that, and in fact, I never got anything worse than a cold my whole life. Sometimes I would be scared that I hadn’t felt enough pain, that it would all come out one day and coil itself around me, but it hadn’t happened yet.
I tried lifting the boy, but I couldn't, it was as if his skin was really led. When it got dark I finally snapped back to reality and considered leaving and getting help, but as soon as I turned around I heard a loud wail behind me. I turned back, he was perfectly still, his mouth was closed, but the wailing continued. I realized it was coming out of his eyes, they were lucid, warm, begging me to stay and keep them company. I kneeled next to him, feeling the wood chips around the swings dig into my knee. My phobia of splinters sent a cold sweat down my neck, but I ignored it.
We stayed on the ground for a long time, with only the starry night sky as our blanket. I lay on my back, then turned him onto his so he could see the stars too. The wind hit the swings above us and they sang a song together, a low whine, almost like a bird singing. I’ve never told this to anyone, not even him, but I was convinced it was his eyes again.
At first, I was afraid of being outside this late, but the cold numbed my fear. We lay there for a long time; no phones, no words, no worries, just numb. Then, as if nothing happened, the boy got up. He was pale, but that could have been the stark lighting from all the stars.
Thinking back on it now I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a dream. He walked me back to my house. My parents were in the kitchen, all the lights were on. Had they been mad? Relieved? I couldn’t remember, as if I had woken up at that moment in another reality. Why hadn’t they just come looking for me in the park?
“What are you thinking about?” The man asked.
“Coffee,” I answered in a dry tone.
“Remember when we were in high school and you refused to drink coffee? Thought you’d get addicted and it would rot your insides or something.”
“I remember,” I said with a small smile.
“You convinced me it would kill me on contact, I still haven’t had a drop.”
“Sorry,” I said, “So you’ve never had coffee?”
“Not even once.”
I nodded, hiding my surprise below the surface of a polite smile. He had traveled across the world, but he never tried coffee. This was the man who left town, one of the few in our class to do so, but he’d never tried coffee. It gave me a strange feeling of pride, as if I’d accomplished something he hadn’t.
“Anyway, I think tonight would be a good time to start,” he said.
His face relaxed into a small grin; nervous and good-natured. But the black serpent that circled his head glared in all directions, wrapping itself tighter around the axis of its circles as if it could see my stupid little flare of pride, and the petty anger I felt towards the man sitting across from me.
He had every right to leave, didn’t he? We were opposites, that’s fine when you’re a little kid, listening to invisible birds sing and sleeping in the park, but as adults, we had to face reality. He wanted to go, I wanted to stay, and in the end, we both got what we wanted.
I asked for a black coffee, he ordered an americano. The snow continued to pile against the window; it looked soft, deceptively warm, a creature trying to lure its prey. The wind cradled the snowflakes in its arms, rocking them from side to side as they made their leisurely descent, before being absorbed by the monstrous white beast on the ground, which threatened to push the windows open. The sky was the color of an elephant, the snowflakes looked like some sort of skin disease on the poor animal. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the scene, it caused me sorrow, but feeling that way seemed to fit me.
He left during a rainstorm, after we graduated high school. I told him to drive safely, he promised he would. I thought those would be my last words to him. This town was my world, after all, and he was leaving it. We said we would stay in touch, and we did, but…
He wasn’t so simple anymore. His constant sickness went away after the first year of travel. He said it was the warm climates, that the rays of the sun split him open and extracted something cold and jagged lodged deep within him. I wasn’t so convinced.
Looking at my pale skin, the dark bags under my eyes, I suppose he was right. People can get used to a lot of things, sure, but those elephant skies and deceptively warm snowflakes had a way of chilling you to the core.
Before he left, I thought hard about what my last words to him in person should be, but in the end, all that came out was “drive safe.”
We stayed in contact for a long time, it seemed pointless, because it only reminded me of what used to be. Still, he sent me letters, and I hid them away from everyone, like the longing they left in me. I loved my life, loved my husband, my kids, but I wished they could have met him, my first real friend. I would write him back whenever I could.
My grandkids told me there were easier ways to stay in touch, but I insisted on writing letters. They were slow and gave me an excuse to take my time writing back. He never complained, either.
Some letters were like journal entries, others read more like a memo, one time he sent over a poem. I burned the poem, worried my husband might find it.
He often wrote to me that he was switching addresses. I only switched once, moving in with my fiance at the time after college. In his most recent letter, he told me he was returning and asked if I wasn’t too busy to see him. I didn’t have anything going on, so I picked a day at random. He picked the place. As far as I know, we’d never been here. Maybe that’s why he chose it.
I thought back to his letter:
I’m back in town, just before Christmas too. I have something I want to talk about, but I think it would be best if we could meet in person. I understand if you don’t want to see me, I will not hold it against you in the least. So, spare some time to come see an old friend?
He didn’t sign his name, never did. I didn’t either, when I wrote back, because there was no chance we would ever forget. What was he going to tell me?
Did he want to be friends again? Possibly more than that? No, not at this age, it was too late for more. Besides, I had loved my husband, and I didn’t want to remarry.
We sipped our coffee slowly. The sky outside seemed to fold in on itself, becoming smaller and smaller as the snow grew more oppressive. Darkness gnawed away at the elephant. Stars appeared, far brighter than the snow, which backed away as if it were jealous.
We ordered two more cups and waited, silently. I adjusted my legs under the table, crossing them. The man rolled his shoulder like it was bothering him. The coffee came and we both wrapped our hands around its warmth. I could tell from the way he studied the cup he was trying to figure out how to say something. We wallowed in silence for a long time.
“You don’t have to worry about the beard,” he finally said, “it’ll fall off, so will the rest of my hair.”
Why would it fall off? I tried to piece together everything that had happened. His letter arrived, telling me he had important news. He had come back, after all these years. He was old. It hit me like an icicle through the back, this wasn’t a simple visit to an old friend, he was making his last visits, just in case.
The cold realization sank into my chest, my heart shivered, then It burst open and sprayed cold blood over my insides. He had left my world once, and now he was getting ready to do it again.
He could tell I had solved the puzzle, his smile warm and comforting. The dark serpent around his head was smirking. It was time to leave, but I couldn’t come up with a way to say goodbye, my whole body felt stiff and frozen.
“Look me in the eyes,” he said.
I did as I was told. He smiled, and for a moment I could see myself in his eyes. They were somehow brighter, tears had welled up in them. Then, a wailing sound, like a bird holding a long note. His eyes were singing, he knew it and I knew it.
We left the diner without words, but not in silence.