We took the train to DC and for the life of me I can’t remember now what you were wearing. I wore a sweater, pigeons stalked the sidewalks. I saw one with a foot missing. It skulked a lurching, crooked path; scouring the cobbles for crumbs with beady eyes, pecking at motes of this and that and whatever. At the margins of the pathways fallen leaves dematerialized in trampled snow.
Ducks meander through the pools making their toy car sounds and probing the water with their beaks. A cold and cloudless sky greeted us when we emerged from the metro, coffeeless and nearly hungry. As we walk to the Lincoln Memorial, Margaret loops her arm through mine.
“Whenever I’m here I think a’ how all this conceals America’s legacy of horror. The fatal fairy-tale of the frontier,” she says this in her nonchalant cadence.
“You’re such an old soul,” I say. Something else would probably be better. I’ve got something bouncing around like, something about the erosive force of imperialism. Something about how everything in life we enjoy are the spoils of genocide. It all seems too heavy. I can ignore it. What does that make me?
Margaret’s arm in mine confuses me but I don’t say anything. When we arrive she unhooks it and we stare up into Honest Abe’s alabaster visage. Shoals of tourists take pictures, young couples, elderly men, school children in single file in red polo shirts. Overlapping they make a streak of wobbly flame across the monument floor.
Here I find my memories faded. We went to the museum and in some memories snow falls and in others it’s clear. I still try to remember what you said at the fountain, pigeons mumbling, tracing their unhappy trails. I try to remember what you said, but where the words should be I hear only a chewing sound. I fear that if this has been redacted other things have been too. Searching through my memory I encounter these lacunae as numerous as craters on the moon. I lay in bed rinsed in the faint and dimly blue glow of absence. Sometimes I think if I saw your face it would dissolve every occlusion in those esoteric neural pathways and all these moments would come roaring back in a deluge. Lost things coming home again. A drug that makes you remember instead of forget.
Rotund clusters of snowflakes fell into Margaret’s tawny hair and make indecipherable constellations. We regard the Jefferson memorial from afar. We buy coffee from a kiosk and walk to the natural history museum. A great fossil menaces us in the lobby above a pasture of pristine tile and we check our coats aware of rows and rows of teeth above our heads.
“The swill they pass off for coffee around here,” Margaret says, taking a lingering sip.
“Bean sludge fresh from purgatory’s endless waiting rooms,” I agree.
Slowly we wander through densely trafficked halls, peering at fossils and panoramas populated with Earth’s ancient dead. Dinosaurs, for one reason or another, evoke in me a subtle dread, an anxiety of magnitude, like when stoners gaze at stars for too long. Large infinities stretched out before me and after me, small infinities squeezed in between every second. The cosmic well plunges deep, bottomless. My cup can only hold so much.
Margaret and I leaned over a rail, looking at a Triceratops. Our shoulders touch.
“Do you think they really looked like this?” she asks.
“Probably not,” I reply.
“I agree. I want to see one with feathers.”
Charming thought. Cumbersome beasts robed the finery of birds of paradise.
Depleted coffee gets tossed into the garbage and we visit the restrooms. Margaret emerges shaking her hands loosely.
“Out of paper towels,” she explains. At the gift shop we browse through postcards. Margaret buys one with precambrian jellyfish and one a mother and child Triceratops.
We go outside into the gray-gold December daylight and sit at the fountain. Margaret takes my picture with her flip phone.
“__________,” she says and I hear a space opera battle in full swing. Beams of light ripping through black-bright hulls like paper, ordinance revealing the battleship’s facets in gory relief. Which is to say I hear nothing.
I still have that picture you took. Pixely, seven years younger, still thin, unkempt beard around my jaw, a bent smile forming in the corner of my mouth. Some days I wonder where you are now, what you are doing. Your phone number is still written on the jacket of my journal and I’ve nearly called you many times. I fear I crossed the re-connection rubicon eons ago. So much time has passed we would be strangers to each other now.
It’s a little early for dinner but we’re both starving so we go to this Thai place Margaret says she thinks she knows. She says she thinks it’s close enough to walk to. So we’re off, away from the pigeon roamed reaches of the capitol mall and onto bright sidewalks, a dense grid of a city I’ve never known. I’ll never know. A gloaming of slooshing tires and parked cars caked with graying snow. We walk up and down the same street a few times, Margaret swearing the whole time that it’s right here, it’s right here I swear. I try to look at the street signs but someone’s blurred them out. We finally find it, right where Margaret said it would be, a set of stairs going beneath the street. Or, its revolving doors flanked by a double door on one side, and we go in. Or it’s in hotel and we have to walk through the lobby to get to it, and we nearly get lost in a sea of gold filigreed carpet. Anyway a host brings us to a table on the second floor. It’s dim and we get sat at the end of a long row of small tables. We remove our snow peppered hats and order beer--Margaret’s preference: “as dark or darker than my heart.” So: stouts, spring rolls, pad thai for two. In the false candlelight of the restaurant (the right hue but not the right consistency) Margaret’s beautiful. She must see me take notice because her expression shifts subtly.
“What are you looking for?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“In a partner, what are you looking for?”
“Um, like, a person you can trust? You mean that kind of stuff?”
“Companionship most, I think.” I say.
“What’s that to you?”
“Oh, companionship it’s, sharing experiences. I think that sharing happiness makes it more meaningful. The parts greater than the whole. If that makes sense. To grow together. If that makes sense.”
“I think so,” she says.
“What about you? What are you looking for?” I ask.
“_________,” Margaret says.
I hear a sound like a train dining car going by, flatware and chandelier crystal clinking in a chorus of nearly broken things underneath the sound of weary conversation.
“And how would you know you’d found that?”
“There’s something, occult, or something, in it, don’t you think? It’s more than just being compatible or being a good team or best friends, there’s something in there that defies description.”
“What, you mean like a spark?”
“More like a flame.”
“It’s like poetry, or pornography,” she says. “No one knows what it is, but you know it when you see it.”
“So it’s a flame that’s... poetic and pornographic.”
“That about sums it up.”
Our food arrives and the warmth and spice is antidote for the chill outside. Margaret picks the cilantro out of the noodles and places them in a pile on a napkin, a drenched paper forest.
“I forgot to order it without,” she explains. “Have you ever had Pho?”
“I thought it tasted like sweaty bathwater until I realized I didn’t like cilantro, then I thought it was delicious.”
“Sweaty bathwater,” I repeat. “I think you just described a martini.”
She crunches up her nose.
“I love olives,” she says.
“I hate olives.”
We split the tab and before the waiter returns for with the check Margaret looks up at me meaningfully.
“You know, I think I was wrong before, about knowing it when you see it. That’s too easy. You won’t know it, you have to guess,” she pauses for a beat.
“And that’s really scary to me.”
“_________,” I say. There’s a sound like a sudden squall churning half-rotted leaves into a flurry. Leathery they spiral through bare branches as though they might re-attach themselves: autumn in rewind.
On the train back to Baltimore, you rested your head on my shoulder and slept the light-runed landscape away.
Margaret rests her head on my shoulder, a welcome weight. Her hair smells vaguely of chlorine. I’m worrying. What happens tonight? Do I stay at her place? Do I go back to mine? Does she come with me? Let’s say I stay over. Then what. We start dating. Then what, the years go by, my love for her fades, tarnished in prevailing winds of the everyday, monotony, the defeat of conformity. Or it doesn’t, but her love for me fades. Or both of us recede into the distance. One or both or neither of us is devastated. Then what was all this time for? I know in this moment I could love her, and I fear I will choose not to, in the end.
And what if it works out? We get married? Then what. We have kids. Then what, we’re stuck in dead end jobs and caring for our offspring while all around us people have exciting careers, go traveling. One of us has an affair. We resent each other. My life has become an elaborate piece of performance art. While driving down the highway home from work every day I often consider ramming my car into a overpass abutment at ninety miles per hour.
She inhales deeply, brushes her hair from her face, looks up at me sleepily. Her hand knits itself through my arm, finds my hand on the armrest. She weaves her fingers into mine, warp and weft.
“I want your other hand too,” she says, reaching over. I give it to her. She has both my hands in hers.
“I don’t work tomorrow,” she says. “You can stay if you want. I know this great coffee place, they have amazing breakfast burritos.”
“That sounds good.” I say. She releases my other hand and nests her head on my shoulder.
So let’s say I stay over. Then what. We go on road trips, camping in the high desert drinking beer by the fire, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, hiking all day, dumping red dust from our boots. Watching the sunset arm in arm from some piney overlook, whispering I love you as the red light apertures down to a speck, then to nothing, leaving only low clouds to darken, stars blinking on one by one above the Mojave. Making love in the tent, reading to each other with our headlamps. Margaret would read me Flannery O’Connor, and I’d read her Borges until both of us fell asleep. Then what?
We spend our weekends with our friends, going to bars, visiting the aquarium and the beach? Eating seafood by the bucket? All the glad years showing up in our bank statements, our waistlines. Getting a pet and a first apartment. A cat I’ll insist we name Mischief, a kitten that will drive me insane with its mewling and kneading and knocking over of things.
It feels right, right? Talking to Margaret’s like a key that fits the lock. So why? By the time I’m laying in her bed, wine-drunk and sulking against the cold wall I’m already thinking this is a mistake when Margaret turns over and says
You said to me then, you weren’t ready for anything. And I laughed and said, yeah me neither. It was nothing, a pinprick in a dark curtain. You said you just needed a little time. After that my memories quietly unravelled and all those moments blurred to hazels and whirs. After that the weeks spooled to months and the months knotted up into years and I composed and re-composed a letter to you dozens of times but it always began the same: Dear Margaret, I encounter you like light, the fastest thing in the universe, encounters darkness.
John Thornburg lives in Denver, Colorado and is currently working on a MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at CU Denver. His fiction and poetry appear in the Coe Review, Blink Ink, Black Heart Magazine, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and others. He hopes to be reincarnated as a jukebox.