This is what will happen in the next three days, after I arrive.
The key you leave for me in the mailbox won’t work at first. I will take it as a bad sign. I will start collecting bad signs which will form a wall preventing you from loving me. You will begin looking at me and only seeing my doubts. I will begin looking at you and only seeing your insecurities. The small example of the world around me will be dingy gray and echoey in its emptiness. All my luggage will be to the left of my feet. My dad and his car will be behind me, waiting for me to open the door.
I will walk around the mostly empty house and mistake your housemate Tia’s bedroom for yours. This is bad sign #2. When I realize the other room is yours I will feel relieved and try searching for angles of comfort there, but will feel as though my eyes aren’t working properly, from all the travel, from the queasy jump from New York to Indiana. A person is not meant to move that fast. And it is so stark seeing another person’s drab familiarities all piled and dampened into a life. I will walk around slowly and see, in a dazed and vertiginous way, all these little familiarities and begin associating them with what will rapidly become my life. They will be the things I see every day.
I will lie on your mattress and feel the flat certainty of the new setting and decision I have made fanning itself over me. I will try sleeping in a halting, turbulent way but will sit up, eyes blurry, when I see a text from you, telling me you are almost home.
“Honey, I’m home!” you will shout up to me.
Is that what your voice sounds like? I will ask myself. This will be another new way I begin seeing you: through a previous version of your face imprinted faintly in the one before me.
You will run into my arms. As we hug I will accidentally knock your head into the side of the door. You will shriek for a moment and we will laugh. The audience will not clap because we are the audience and our hands will be too cold and stiff to move, let alone clap. I will notice your hair is dyed black, straight and dried out like an old paintbrush. Your face will be ridden with obvious change, so obvious it will make me want to cry. Who are you? I will want to say. Instead I will say, “How are you?”
We will begin saying things to each other slowly and strangely, as if hearing our voices for the first time. Nothing we say will sound right, or even human. So we will choose not to say anything that would address the awkwardness or the darkness or the doubt, instead tuck it into ourselves and continue to feel the echo of its presence throughout the night, as we drive to the lake house where my family has gathered for Thanksgiving. On the drive I will feel the flat vacancy of the Midwest surround me like a nightmare of forever. I will read to you as you drive, hoping this act of intimacy will act as a spell to make everything right.
At the lake house we will begin drinking immediately, asking where the glasses are, which bottle we should open. Before we enter I will say to you, “Don’t worry about being polite, just be yourself. Drink as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to curse or say you’ve had a couple UTI’s recently.”
My uncle will say “How was New York? You look good!” to me with a surprised voice when he sees me and I will avoid the mirror as I wash my hands after peeing. My cousin and his fiance will beam with visions of their future and discuss their impending nuptials. I will violently glug lukewarm champagne when my aunt asks me what my goals are. “My goal is to have a goal,” I will say, pouring myself another glass of champagne but finding only drops emerging from the bottle in my hand.
At night you and I will leave the house with my brother, taking a bottle of wine with us. Escape will become the only way I will find I can try seeing you; the darkness of night and the smearing of alcohol will somehow make things momentarily clear. We will stand together on the white beach, staring at the apparently limitless black ocean and the foggy gray sky above it. It will feel like we are standing face to face with the murky void of the future. Blank and vast and terrifying. But beautiful, nonetheless. That is the sinister irony of life. It is most ugly, most horrifying, just before it takes your breath away.
Then, after our breaths are taken, you will bend over in the cool white sand and vomit. Wind will shift the black paint brush strands of hair over your face. You will walk back to the house precariously as I grab hold of your arm. You will collapse in the backseat of your car and start falling in and out of sleep. I will tell you several times, in a gentle whisper, “We have to get up, we have to go. I swear you don’t want to sleep in the car.” Your body will be heavy and I won’t be able to lift or move you. Your head will be down, hiding your face from me.
We will wake up on couches in the basement. We will leave the beach house early, so we won’t have to stay another night. Instead of driving back to the house, our new home, we will pick up our friend Josh and drive fifty miles away to Ohio, to the town I grew up in. It will feel like searching for somebody’s grave with a flashlight then finding it and crawling inside the coffin. Each decision we make for the next few days, each move we make, will feel risky and unsafe in this way.
When we park in the empty stone driveway to the left of my parents’ house I will realize I didn’t bring the key to the house. We will drag an empty trash can from the garage and prop it up against the back of the house with a window leading to the laundry room, then climb and crawl through after opening the window, one by one. Before my turn, though, a wide bright light will shine on me like the eye of something great and powerful. It will turn out to be the motion sensing light from the neighbor Ed’s house. I will explain to him my situation. My parents live here. Maybe you remember me? I’m back now, I live in the state just thirty minutes from here. It’s what they call a border state. I was living away in New York for the past three months, I don’t know if you knew. I dropped out of school. I’m here collecting some of my stuff, to take with me to my state, the border state. I live there now. I need to do this right now so I can see my friends in a new setting. I need to fix my vision, something happened to it. I need to figure out what my friend’s face looks like. I need to go. Thank you for understanding. Sorry if I scared you. Will that light go off now?
The ceiling inside my parents’ house will seem significantly lower. It will feel like we are walking around underground, safe in some way in our hiding. I’ll show you and Josh photos of me as a child. Each room will be dimly lit and seem tiny as if it has shrunk.
The need to be alone will tap at the sides of my head like a migraine and I will go to the large bathroom upstairs alone to take a bath. “I haven’t been able to take a bath in three months,” I will tell you and Josh. My dorm building in New York only had showers. I’ll turn the heat on high. I’ll take off all my clothes and look at my body in the mirror before submerging it into the hot water. My skin will swarm with anxious goosebumps. I will want the warmth of the water to penetrate me, open up something inside my body that will reset how the past forty eight hours have unfolded. I will want to cry but I will feel too far from myself and won’t.
Something will be playing from the speakers in the downstairs kitchen where you are sitting alone and it will sound like it’s playing from another room, distant like a faraway memory. We will start taking shots of the cheap vodka we brought with us and I will begin feeling sedated and yellow like I did in my brother’s ex-boyfriend’s apartment in Chicago five months ago, when you were an angel before me. That is the image of you I will begin searching for every time I see your current face, flat and waiting there for me.
Then, for seven little seconds—one, two—I will see the softer, three months younger version of you, where you are an angel and surrounded by the warmth of summer. I will see the person I used to love and will love again, just not in the same way right now. Things are too cold right now, will be for a while. And in seven seconds—three, four—the fear and the doubt will come back and your face and body will tuck itself in again and flatten out. I will again forget how to love you and not know who you are. But for seven seconds—five, six, no! NO!—you will be mine again and we will look so startlingly young. Warm and simple like summer. I will understand that the fear and the doubt is temporary, that things won’t always feel wrong and cold like this. Another summer will come. The fear will come in waves and will manifest in other things, but you will come back too. You have to. It will seem a thing as certain as seasons are here in the midwest.
Another second will pass, despite everything, and in that second I will see you getting smaller and smaller as if I’m driving away from you. Suddenly your smile and your hair and eyes are the most repulsive things in the world and make me want to vomit.
The second will be over and the seven seconds of summer from before—though it will feel like it was seven years ago—will stretch out longer and longer into more seconds, even minutes. And though the image and feeling of those first seven will fade a little with each passing moment, the tiny goosebumps of hope, the hope that it will come back again, will seem like enough. It will.
I am driving with my dad now, just out of the city coming home. This is where I am writing from. I haven’t seen you in three months. The last time I saw you it was warm and our skin was darker, we seemed smaller and so the world seemed bigger. A dirty white snow covers everything now and our skin is paler, everything a little stiffer and unsure. When my dad picked me up today to take me home, the car kept overheating. Through downtown Manhattan traffic we turned the car off in two minute intervals to conserve energy, restarting whenever traffic crawled forward a few feet.
When the car finally makes it out of the city, driving fast down the New Jersey Turnpike, I notice how it looks suddenly small and pretty like a souvenir, like the foggy image a person has of it before they come here. It is doused in romantic pastels, soft pinks and yellows and blues. And for a moment I regret leaving it. Was it really so bad? Was I just too weak and naive to get through the muck of a city, to appreciate the beauty of it? Things always look pretty as you’re leaving them. Which is maybe why I wanted to leave; maybe that’s why I always want to leave a place prematurely: to see the outward beauty of a thing I can’t see as I’m inside, living or pretending to live within it.
We will wake up in my parents’ house and it will seem to have grown and expanded a little over night—the ceilings a little taller, the rooms a little wider. We will drive back to the new house and the blue sky will stare back at us bright and blank. What color is that? I will ask myself. Cerulean, Cyan maybe, Azure. Something that sounds more poetic than what it is. Something that reaches to explain all the complexities, but fails, but tries.
Mr. Blue Skies by Electric Light Orchestra will come on the tape—a jaunty song you and I would listen to all the time last summer. It will come through the speakers fuzzy and muffled, like it’s stretching with each note from a distant place. It’s not just blue! I will want to say to the tape. It’s so much more than that! My hands will be waving in my head, imaginary tears running down my face. How was New York? voices will ask back at me, coming over the music. It was so many things! I will shout from the hidden version of myself you can’t see—the version of myself that cries and turns keys and walks into the right rooms and sees every potential color. Do you think you’ll miss New York? How does it feel to be back? Are you going back to school? What happened? Why are you moving back home?
The voices will hush and I will hear the hopeful stretching of the music. I will turn away from the sky for a moment and look at you in the passenger seat. You will look to me a little flattened still, but something approaching hope, a just barely visible steam, will be rising somewhere from you. It will peek out through your eyes, which won’t necessarily be saying or telling me anything, but that will seem awake and searching. They will be pointed forward, toward the sky. I will wonder what colors you are seeing.
Matthew Merriwether is a writer and performer currently living in Fort Wayne, IN. He writes and performs music under the name Fresh Tar, and is recently the author of Knock Knock (The Dandelion Review, 2018), a chapbook of narrative prose. His work has appeared in BOAAT Journal, FLAPPERHOUSE, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere.