Driving rain patters on the roof and against my bedroom window, filling the room with a steady hum. I glance at the thermometer in the window sill, the red line faintly holds above freezing and I wonder why it’s not snowing instead. Beyond the window lays the front lawn, in many places more brown than green, and is cropped short though no one has trimmed it in a month. Maples line the street and stretch their naked branches to the sky like crooked fingers, leaves long fallen and swept away by city workers. There is a hum and splash as a car drives by on 82nd, it’s headlights streaking in the rain and wipers struggling to keep up with the drone. I search the glass with my fingertips, its smooth and cold, and the sensation ripples up my arms and tightens my skin. My reflection mirrors back softly before the warmth of my breath blurs it and the scene beyond from view. Its December in Seattle.
I move to my desk, a flimsy secretary thing I picked up from a friend, which looks like it came from the thrifty section of Ikea and assembled by hands less trustworthy. Its wide surface holds my laptop and stacks of papers I’ve yet to complete. The fold out chair I sit in has little padding and my backside aches from the absence of cushion, I consider grabbing a pillow from my bed but I don’t – the discomfort stiffens my resolve.
It’s Sunday, weeks from Christmas and I’m settling in to write a holiday letter to my family; something I do every year. This is the second time I’ve sat here and tried to pry the words from my mind but the paper lays blank on the desk, mocking me. I have the urge to run to QFC and raid the Hallmark aisle for enough cards to send them all with nothing except a “love, Andrew” below the mass-produced text inside the right panel but I can’t bring myself to follow through. The holidays have rushed in like an icy draft from the door she left open in the warm, cozy house of summer, sending me scrambling to escape the cold. I wonder if that’s why we invented holidays, to distract us from the despicable chill and darkness of these months.
Lights are strung throughout the neighborhood, twinkling on every house and dressing their yards like roadside attractions. On the corner of Pine & 6th, behind a glass storefront, there’s and old man showing in a red suit and a large, white beard – whether its authentic or held to his face with a strap, I can’t tell. His warm voice bellows through the speakers outside as crowds gather and wait with impatient children for their turn to sit on his lap. Not far from there hangs a brilliant star in Westlake center illuminating hurried crowds as they wander to and from shops sporting knit caps, wool coats, and gloves, their steaming breath trailing behind.
The scene outside and around the city is a stark contrast from where I sit now. Fall came and went with an array of colors that dazzled my eyes, still drunk on sunshine, before winter crept in on tiptoes while I dozed off my summer hangover. The only evidence of the season within these walls is the gaudy Christmas card that my mom sent me at the beginning of the month, sitting reproachfully on the shelf next to an empty beer can, as my lack of decorating continues in my unwillingness to let go of what’s already passed.
My street in Wallingford is especially quiet this morning and I imagine most lay under covers, guarded from the gloom outside. The analog clock above my desk reads 8:13 a.m. Normally, I would still be dozing but I was awake hours ago. Memories I’d rather forget wrecked my sleep. Visions of summer flickered through the corridors of my imagination until I was lost in the darkness between illusions, waking as I grasped at the cold, vacant sheets on the opposite side of the bed.
It was late July when I met Jess, and just as quickly as the warm weather came she left in the dizzy haze of fall, back to university in Chicago. We fell out of touch then except a brief snapchat of her studying or out with friends but she doesn’t call anymore and I don’t bother. From the scarce chance that sparked our introduction, I believed the universe was pulling strings to put us together and for a time I thought she might be the one. What’s more, I never doubted she was.
I hadn’t been seeing Jess for more than two weeks before I told my mom about her, which I don’t do until there is something substantial to report. Typically, I’m flung from date to date, face to face, they mix together in a blurry memory of hair, legs, and breasts. Jess is the only one I see clearly. Her warm laughter, the lilac scent of her hair, and the way her green eyes sparkled when we walked along the sandy shores of Pacific City in August.
We met at a friend’s wedding, a small venue in Snohomish housing a bright and beautiful wooden barn by a river. The gravel parking lot crunched under my feet as I made my way to entrance, a walk paved in brick and lined with bouquets of white flowers.
I was wearing my only wedding appropriate attire – a white button up shirt, black tie, slacks, brown leather shoes, and trimmed with glimmering, gold finish watch – which passed for something much more expensive than it was.
I arrived early and alone, scanning the other early comers for faces I recognized. Music drifted from speakers above me, hung in the rafters of the barn, it was a John Mayer number, You love who you love, who you love. Small, sharply dressed circles were forming throughout the venue, people finding familiar and new faces to chat with, and asking the usual questions – who do you know? Oh I met him in college, we were room mates. She was my neighbor. I used to ride the bus with her parents. Small world.
I stood there by myself on the dust covered floor in front of a small stage, where instruments stood idly waiting for the band to play, and took in the scene. White plastic chairs sat in even rows, angling away from the podium, with a wide berth covered in burlap leading down the center to large barn doors swung wide where the ceremony would take place. A warm breeze swam through the opening, on the wind’s fingers was the smell of the hay field, flowers, and livestock.
To the far end, tables were being set. Several round tables surround a long rectangular one in the center, in front of each placement was a name card designating seating. I saw the groom’s mother hovering over them, deep in conversation with one of the servers, organizing and preparing.
I didn’t see anyone I recognize who wasn’t preoccupied with arrangements, so I grabbed a coke from the refreshments table and stepped out behind the barn. The backside of the barn was shaded from the sunlight, with a dirt road that ran along it and out into a field where I noticed the wedding assembly in the distance, as they posed for photos. There was a wooden barrel near one end of the barn, a safe distance from the doors, and I moved toward it. I set my coke down on the round, wood top and pulled a smoke from my jacket pocket. I lit it, took a drag, and leaned against the wall of the barn.
The wedding party began to move toward me with Danielle, the bride, gracefully held the lead with a bridesmaid close behind, who elevated the train. The others trailed behind, broke off or stopped to talk. When Danielle was closer, she looked up and noticed me for the first time, her face beamed and she waved.
When Danielle was within earshot, I called to her.
“Hey Danielle!” My voice sounded strained. “My god, You look amazing!”
“Hey Andrew! Oh, thank you!” she said shyly and blushed. Then she trapped me in a hug and I did my best to hold the cigarette in my left hand away from her. She released me and looked accusingly down at the fingers of smoke which rose from my side. I braced for her to scold my dirty habits when she lifted her eyes to mine and said, “Give me a cigarette.”
I falter and raise my eyebrows, Danielle didn’t smoke.
“God damnit, Andrew. Don’t look at me like that. It’s my wedding day, I can do what I want!” She pleaded and raised her fists at me playfully. Her bridesmaid, an older girl I didn’t know, stood behind her with barely contained laughter.
“Okay, Okay.” I said, as I shielded myself from her punches and pulled out a smoke. “Here you go.”
She took it and put it to her lips clumsily. I took another drag and sipped my coke. She glared at me as if I’d forgotten something.
“Are you gonna light this for me or what?” Her hands on her hips.
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.” I laughed, her face was apprehensive with feigned annoyance. I pulled the lighter from my pocket and snapped the wheel, and the flame burst to life. I heared the click of a camera shutter and looked up, that’s the first time I saw Jess. She’s looked like a cool summer day, dressed in high top converse with faded blue jeans ripped at the knees, a snug white top with thin blue sailor stripes, and her light brown hair up in a messy bun. She held the camera up around her shoulder, the other arm crossed underneath for support, and looked directly at me but she didn’t smile. Something flickered in her eyes, that kind of connection you don’t have to explain, which trapped me in her gaze until billows of smoke stung my eyes and I was forced to blink.
Danielle choked and coughed smoke into my face like someone with the flu.
“Jesus, how do you guys smoke these things?” she asked me, her face bunched up as she held the cigarette away from her like a piece of moldy trash before she pulled it back, mumbling fuck it as she took another drag.
I laughed and the shutter clicked rapidly, Jess’s presence was like a magnetic pull as she swooped around us.
After the ceremony, the party began. The band crooned upbeat numbers as guests flooded the dance floor where old couples swayed and younger ones twirled and shook. I saw Jess lingering around the edge, lost in her work, the camera rarely leaving her face except to look at the screen on the back. I was out on the floor with some friends and I’d just finished dancing with one of the bridesmaids when the band started playing You make me feel so young and before I could stop myself I was headed for Jess.
“Care to dance?” I asked, holding out my hand.
She looked up with a curious smile on her lips.
“I’m working.” She offered, then looked back at her camera screen and began adjusting something.
“I’m sure you can give it a rest for one song.”
“But what if I miss something, that’s why I’m here – to capture moments.” She said, still looking at the screen, the edges of her mouth held on to a trace of a smile.
“Its one song, I’m sure the moments will wait until then.” I nodded my head toward the dance floor. “Come on.”
She looked up at me, uncertain. I held my hand out, waiting. Then shrugged and set the camera aside, taking my hand as we dove into the throng of moving bodies. We fell into step with the crowd as I spun her around and pulled her close, the warmth of her body was electricity against mine, fluttering its way to my stomach. Neither of us could dance well but for a few short minutes we pretended we could, laughing when we missed the others hand or fumbled a step. The crowd behind her blurred into a white glow until she was the only thing I could see, her smile drew me in and her twinkling green eyes held me there. In a moment I saw the flash of a what could be, her and I years from now dancing together as the center of attention at in a place much like this, with this as opening chapter to the story. My heart outpaced the beat of the music as I was struck with the possibility of what might be.
The song ended much too soon and I was forced to release her hand as we clapped for the band. A vibrating hush fell over the room as people backed away from the floor to make way for the bride and groom, walking hand in hand toward the middle. A slow, sweet rendition of Lost began to play as I looked at Jess.
“Okay, I gotta get back to work.” She pulled my tie as she passed, and smiled up at me. “Find me later?” she said.
Jess left me for her camera as I backed to the edge of the dance floor and meshed with the audience. My head swam with elation, alluding to the start of something beautiful but I learned later that the strength of a beginning bears no weight on how a story might end.
I remember that day with a clarity reserved for things like the password to my phone or the the pin number to my bank card, chiseled into the framework of my mind like a statue. I’m far from summer and even further from Jess in the cold bedroom of my flat. I thought it would pass by now, that I would stop missing Jess and move on but its not as simple as I’d hoped.
If I was a better man, I would have seen it coming and prepared my heart for the blow, possibly netting myself before I fell too deep. It’s too late for that now. I’m helpless in the waves looking for the solid ground I once knew before Jess came into my life. The world around me moves in haste but I feel no closer to shore, an endless sea surrounding me. All the moments we shared rise like choppy surf in the distant corners of my mind and before I can escape its path it swallows me and drives me under.
Theres something so lonely about having a memory all to myself, especially when it’s such a beautiful one, it digs down deep in my soul and buries itself in silence.
I turn back to the Christmas letter, I’ve only been able to write Dear family and friends, – the rest of the page is vacant. I drum the pen against the top of the desk and wonder if I have any words worth writing – if the people the letter is addressed to will even care. I rub my eyes, it feels like I haven’t slept but my bed doesn’t beckon me. I get up and walk into the kitchen, an empty mug in hand. I ready the coffee maker, scoop the grounds into the filter, close it, and push start. Everything seems so mechanical, cold. I check my phone – no new messages. The coffee maker hums to life, then crackles, sputters, and beeps once the pot is full. I take a steaming cup and head back to my room.
It seems hopeless that I might get any words down on paper this morning, so I avoid the desk and sit on the bed. I sip my coffee and let my eyes blur and my mind wander. Theres a dull ache in my stomach and for the first time since I woke I realize I’m hungry. I do a mental check of the fridge, scanning its empty shelves in my mind, and realize there is only a stale bagel and a couple cans of beer occupying its cool interior. Neither option sounds appetizing. There is a little breakfast place not too far from my apartment and the rain has died down a bit, I decide I could use the fresh air and nourishment. I’ll just bring my paper along incase words come after my stomach is satisfied.
I jump off the bed and dress but I can’t find my jacket, the warm one I reserve for chilly days such as this. On the hangers, I see a flimsy rain jacket I could easily use instead but the absence of the one I intended to wear annoys me. I look up and over, pull out my empty suitcase, a backpack, several pairs of shoes, a blanket, and yoga mat. It’s not under them. I slide the doors back and forth, hoping it might reveal itself if I move them enough times but it doesn’t. There isn’t much room for spare items in the small confines of my apartment, which also means there aren’t many places for things to go missing, something a person as forgetful as myself has learned to appreciate. I turn from the closet and look in the only other place, under my bed. I pull up the bed skirt and voila, there it sits tightly packed under the frame. I bend down and struggle to grip it, the frame is especially close to the ground, but I grasp it at the edges and pull. It gives a little but its jammed as if it doesn’t want to be put back in service. I pull harder. It comes free and the force throws me onto my butt, the coat splayed out in front of me. I quickly understand why the jacket put up such a fight. Articles of clothing were tucked in its folds, now laying in a haphazard trail to the bed, the sight of them hits me like a punch to my stomach. A pairs of shorts, a tank top, a tee-shirt, and a bathing suit. Jess’s clothes.
It reminds me of a night at Golden Gardens, when we watched the sun go down and talked about our dreams as the campfire crackled. I pick up the tank top, the smell of wood smoke and perfume flood my nostrils, bringing with it a wash of emotions. I set it aside and grab the rest. I remember how difficult the top button of the shorts was to unlink as we stumbled into my room, buzzed on summer and drunk on each other. The coral bathing suit, how the knots slipped so easily from their bind and from Jess’s sun kissed skin. Snapshots of her face, messy hair, the warmth of her touch, the sand that remained in my bed for weeks, and the way we slept after we both were spent.
I fold the clothes and set them on the bed like delicate artifacts and look under the bed to see if anything else is hiding below. There’s a pair of converse, far too small to be mine, and I set them alongside the folded clothes. Then I sit down in the chair at my desk, now turned to face the bed, and stare at the paraphernalia on the edge of my mattress like I’m guarding a prisoner.
There’s a storm rising in my chest and my throat feels tight. I don’t want to go over all of this again, to think about her, but its too late. I wonder what she’s doing now, where she is, and if I’d left her with anything that might remind her of me. If she thinks of me when she thinks of summer, I can’t be sure. It’s almost easier to imagine that she doesn’t, that those couple of months were just something to pass time until she went back to school and far from her life in Seattle.
I should send her the clothes or drop them off at her parents house. I doubt she will need them any time soon but they don’t serve me here. Before I can stop myself, I grab my phone, open her contact, press call, and the phone is ringing. Its 8:42 in the morning.
My hand feels foreign as I hold the phone to my ear. My heart does little circles with each dial tone. I need to calm down, I don’t want to sound like a fool when she answers. She was always the perceptive one, she could read me when no one else could, and I decide that it doesn’t matter what I do she will draw a conclusion. I solidify myself in the fact that I’m just calling to return her clothes – nothing more. Nothing more.
On the third tone, the line opens. A pause, the sound of someone fumbling with the phone, then Jess’s sleepy voice comes across the speaker.
“H-hello?” She says.
“Hey. Hi, Jess.”
“Andrew? Hey, whats up?” There’s motion in the background and I try to ignore it. She’s moving now and I wonder why she isn’t fine to talk where she was.
“I -uh- was just going through some things and I found some of your clothes.” I say.
Pause on the other end. So, I continue.
“A pairs of shorts, a shirts, a swimsuit, and your white converse.” I list them off like items on a lunch menu. “I didn’t know, thought you might like to have them back?” I say.
“Oh man. Okay, yeah. I looked everywhere for those shoes before I left.” She says, a yawn.
“where were they?”
“Under the bed.” I laugh, it sounds forced. I hate that I can’t hide the tension in my voice.
“Oh yeah?” she’s says.
“I could send them to you?” I ask.
“Uhh, yeah. I’ll be back in town in a week, you could give them to me then-“ she pauses, “Or just drop them off at my parent’s house.”
“Okay. I’ll do that.”
“I don’t know yet.” I struggle for a laugh, it sounds hollow – distant. “I could just hold on to them until next summer?” I say before I can stop myself.
She’s silent. It’s funny how its sometimes lack of sound that says more than thousands of words. There won’t be a next summer for us, I already knew that.
“No, I’ll -uh- get them to your house. Its a little out of the way”, her parents live on Bainbridge Island, a hour away with a ferry ride involved, “Could I just mail them over?”
“Yeah, sure. That works. I’ll text you the address.” She says.
I don’t know what to say, thanks? Thanks for everything? She starts again.
“Andrew, how are you?” Theres a tenderness to her voice. She’s concerned, in a far off way that says she’s past me but wants to make sure I’m okay. That I’m not drowning over here. I am. I try to remember why I called because I’m struggling to hold back. Just to return the clothes, nothing more.
“I’m good!” I say a bit too cheerily then add, “Yeah, just struggling with the holiday bustle. I haven’t done any of my Christmas shopping yet and the clock is winding down. Its been a rainy, cold month in Seattle. I miss summer.”
“Yeah, me too.” She replies.
“How are you?” I ask.
“I’m good. Just plugging away at school, this final will be the death of me.” She says, theres a distance to her voice thats farther than the miles of ground between us.
“What is-“ I start before she interrupts. I hear a voice in the background, a deep one.
“Hey, I gotta go. It was good to hear from you. I’ll send you the address.” She says.
“Yeah, good to hear you too. Take care.” I say. Before she hangs up I hear the male voice ask, who are you talking to?
The line closes. A heaviness settles on my shoulders and I’m forced to believe that its just me in this moment. Jess is like a distant satellite, that once graced my life with her light, but before I could appreciate it, she blinked off in the distance for another revolution around the world.
I look at the clothes and realize I’d rather burn them than send them to her, my last act of courtesy. It might comfort me to watch them ignite and feel the heat of the embers – the last bit of warmth she’ll ever give me – but I know the flame will go out too quickly just like ours did.
I rub my eyes, as if I can press back the flood threatening to break. There’s no cure for loneliness in the vacancy of a love unrequited except time and the willingness to forget. I silently wonder at the purpose of love and our need as humans to be connected to one another, when it can rip out your insides and leave you a shell of the person you were before it came. It would be much easier if there wasn’t such an ambition, if there wasn’t a need. But I know, just as quickly as I have the thought that its the very thing that makes life worth the while. When love came, it thundered happily through my heart and stretched my veins until it felt as though I would burst from the pressure. The feeling lifted me off my feet and everything was easier, more beautiful, when I loved someone and felt loved back. When love left, it was replaced by its ugly opposite and I am sent reeling like an addict coming down – looking for another hit of a drug no longer in circulation. But I know there is light somewhere beyond the darkness and I won’t find it hidden in the contours of the past.
So, I grab my winter jacket, head for the door, and brace myself for the cold.