I found some pictures. Pictures of you.
Not the you I once knew. Gone now, the mass of black curls. Gone, the sharp cheekbones women whispered about, the slanted green eyes that pierced so much they frightened people. Gone now the tiny frame of muscle that had lifted me high and twirled with such frenzy as to become blur. Not there, I looked for it; the small, silent cat who walked on padded paws, claws pulled in.
Jess, I remember. Lithe and compact, deceptively strong, the kind they say you should watch out for. He could land on his feet and turn on you faster than you could regroup. That was evidenced to me more than once. It wasn’t rare to see some big dumb oaf try to take him on. Usually it was because of the eyes, and his size, but also because of me. Just because he was with me and some big guy thought it should’ve been him.
Big-guy could have never kept up with me. In fact, I would have left him wondering what had just happened to him. We both knew that.
Now that I think of it, I guess since then I probably gave that guy a try or two. You can probably guess the outcome.
I’m sorry, I was talking about you like you weren’t in the room. But in a way, I guess maybe you’re not, are you? I’m still having a time putting it all together. You are the same guy, after all. And then, you aren’t.
I am not the one you knew either.
It’s been a long time.
I think maybe what’s happened is this simple: You grew up. That makes sense. I guess I did too. Certainly, I’ve come at least as far as you.
It’s not that I myself look much different. No, I really don’t think I do. I might look better, even though I have laugh lines now. But I’ve replaced myself.
I didn’t do it all at once, and it was never intentional. Just eventually, enough of that old me died, and someone new settled in. I never knew it would be that way.
I tried to hang on to who I was and who we were and what we said. What we did. And one day, I just couldn’t find you anymore. I never really knew what happened, or couldn’t remember. More and more, a glass and a needle had made the shape of us into something I couldn’t see. But something I couldn’t leave either.
Finally, I let someone else do it for me, for us. He slid in like a snake, slithering into the space you left. He struck with something you couldn’t fight, a venom with no antidote. He helped me turn on you, away from you. It didn’t take long for me to see what I had done. What he had done. There was no undoing it, but I had to tell you. And I still don’t think the end came there.
I would’ve died. Without you, I would’ve died. You saved me but you couldn’t stop the seizures.
Before it happened, I remember us being inside. I’m standing in the barred doorway smoking, and someone’s yelling at me to get away from the door. “Don’t get too close to the bars.” Hands are reaching in to grab my lit cigarette. And voices are passing and lingering, calling to me with proposals and curses, insane whispers rustling and fading on, smells, Mota. In the pitch black, a sudden awareness of a body and a pair of eyes so close I can feel heat, see blinking. This time a hand reaching in, offering smoke.
I take another hit of cognac from the singer’s bottle, for courage. I’ll be outside soon. It’s cold. We finally head out together.
At first, it’s just like pins and needles. It starts in my feet and moves upwards, and I stand still looking at myself, trying to see something. You’re hissing at me now to walk, reminding me where we are, but my feet don’t do what I tell them. I look at your face but the picture is in pieces. Triangles and slivers, broken glass.
I know my head explodes. I hear a loud “pop”, when the pins and needles get that far up. When I hear it, the kaleidoscope vision I’ve had just before, vanishes. With that “pop”. And then there’s dark.
I hear screaming, a wailing, that builds and rises. A horrible sound and one I hope I never hear again. Absolute terror and agony in it, a person being skinned alive. I hear it from far away, and I strain to tell it’s source, and I can’t see a thing but blackness.
I’m trying so hard to fight my way out of the black. I can still hear everything, and you’re screaming my name. All my will is given to it, but I can’t help it. Just black. The blackest black I’ve ever known. Where do you think I am? I’m serious, do you know? Because I don’t. I’m gone, but trapped, still here. I am blind and I am dead, but still aware of me. Still hearing you scream at me. Still registering the impact when you start slapping me, but too dead to feel. In truth, it’s a worse pain that any other pain I’ve ever felt—that much I register. Dead, but alive. Afterwards, I will dream for years that I am dead. Dead, but aware. That’s where I am, I can’t come back, I can’t help you. I can’t do anything.
The people that see me when you bring me in think I’m out of it. And I am. By this time I’m not even twitching; I am silent, unresponsive, unfeeling, “unconscious”. I hear them say it. But I hear every word they say, every word you say. All these years later, I will still feel Erin’s hands on my face, over and over stroking, her voice the only peace like a song “It’s going to be all right—It’s going to be all right.” She says my name, over and again, tells me she is right here, right here, right here. The only one who seems to understand—I can still HEAR.
How does she know where I am? She knows. No one else does.
But you save me. You get me to her. You yell my name so many times I don’t fly off with those screams I hear, those screams that are really mine.
Erin knows about this place. She must hear the voices in my head that tell me not to listen, not to listen to her, that try to keep me with them. She never stops saying my name, never stops touching me, never gives up. I know it, know she is holding on, showing me a light I can’t see or really feel, but she keeps the tether of it wrapped around my soul.
God. Erin. I wish she knew. She was the one who saved us both that night.
I can’t tell the rest of the story now. I thought I could. But it turns out I’m not brave enough after all. You have your story, and I have mine, but you don’t know the rest of mine. If I could get through it without crying, without looking for the scar…
Maybe it’s better if I leave it that way. I know I can always fast forward. That’s easier.
I see you in pictures. One, I keep only in my head. No one else can see it.
You’re sitting on a kitchen chair out my back door playing slide on an old Les Paul. Tipping the chair back, rocking it. You’ve just had a haircut—the only one I ever saw you with. Your wild curls look tame. Like they might even stay that way.
We’ve never said a word before, least not that I can remember. But I hear what you’re playing and I can’t help it and I give you that look. And too much passes between us then and I can’t take it back. And you just say “How eloquent you are.” And you are playing slide again. But now it’s only for me.
I had another one; I kept it for years ‘til someone made me throw it away. It was you, again with the Les Paul, but it had nothing to do with me. I just liked the picture. My friends liked it; they thought you were someone I didn’t recognize; a rock star, maybe. They’d always ask who you were, and I’d just shrug. I liked it because I could see blue on you.
There’s more. The last place I knew about without me in it. A box, and my shaking hand on the cover and lifting, before I can say not to. And there it is, all of it. And I know you’re serious, because this is not the outfit of a dabbler. And I know you know I know. And I watch you walk like a ghost out the door for your appointment. I know what we’ve lost is never coming back.
There are several missing pages. I don’t know where those shots went, but I never have seen them anyway. I just leave them blank. The one I find next is someone else again.
And I ask him, “Are you happy?”
Then “Do you love her?” And you are silent for too long.
“ I never want to have again what I had with you. The kind of love that makes you DO what you would never do, under any other circumstances.”
And I know just what you mean.
You are comfortable, you tell me so. And it’s all right if we just sit holding each other all night, and if we cry for who we were because it’s all we’ll ever have of it now.
And then I found these others. Not mine at all, they’re just out there and I saw them.
They really do have not a thing to do with me, just like that other picture. Someone I don’t know; yet I’d know you anywhere.
Age has found us all, if we’ve survived. And you wear the weight of your soul in your eyes, in your flesh. Just as I do. It’s shocking, really, to see the scars. No, they’re not ugly. I know about them, anyway. Like you know about mine. All the same, we forget.
And I ask, “Are you happy?” and I can’t hear an answer. But you look comfortable, and so I tell you so. You reply by holding your guitar, the same as always.
And I ask, “Do you regret anything?” And you are silent again, but I think I see you smile.
It’s good to see you.