It was a nicely sized room to be sure.
I’d been coming and going from it for just a few months, but I felt comfortable here. Comfortable enough that while he showered I stood in my underwear poking through an unpacked box unafraid he would catch me. The apartment was still thawing, the April light wafting in the windows was too delicate to add any heat. It added only a glow to my skin where goosebumps left shadows like hills. There was one box in the room filled halfway with books. I sorted through them not remembering them from his collection. We had spent plenty of time sitting on his old bed admiring the large bookcase spanning his old room wall to wall. Some of them I had read, The Great Gatsby, The Giver. Others I had not read, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, a textbook about Kant. Pulling each out of the box and finding another title beneath until my armpit scraped on the cardboard. I reached in and pulled out a tattered copy of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Beneath the demolition of high school freshmen, the cover had a young girl, Scout, sitting staring right into the camera. A black and white photograph now covered with a green slash and graphite glasses which when catching the light had a dull sheen to them. If it was a school book I could see why they didn’t take it back. I flipped through the pages to see what the inner workings of a 14-year-olds brain might illuminate to me now at 22. I found only underlines and stars which spoke of silent note-taking lost to time itself. Until eventually I found my way back to the first page where his name and his brother’s name sat one on top of the other. It was then that he entered his room a towel slung around his waist. I pointed towards a copy of The Phantoms Tollbooth.
“This is my favorite childhood book.”
He smiled, speaking with his raspy voice coming up behind me so the water from his hair dripped on my shoulder “Really? I don’t remember packing this.”
A couple of weeks after sifting through that box our relationship was over. He would meet someone else and date her. It wasn’t clear to me then we were ending, just the opposite really, I was sure we were beginning. Beginning in the sense our relationship was so intimate it surpassed what I knew of love from the past. The only place I thought we could end up was together.
When I think back on this relationship, however, it’s difficult not to talk about the books. What we had wasn’t formal, we walked in and out of each other’s lives meeting and not meeting, talking and not talking, with leisure. We were up late and then left early, we kissed and sometimes we didn’t kiss. There was no tell-tale sign, just a knowing, some sort of silent contract that both tormented me and relieved me. To be in and out of love all at once. Yet to be together didn’t exempt us from forming a common language. The converging of our two histories met midway, in one place where we established a center of gravity for which the relationship relied on. Books. For us, it was always books.
Thinking about intimacy and relationships we think of the body. To be intimate is to be close physically. It’s true in some regard, but the longer our relationship was purely physical the more intimate it became to experience the mundane parts of life together. I say books were our common language, but it isn’t so precise as that, books perhaps more a veil over what was really being said. We’d talk about books but it was never really about books, not in some ways. It was a place we opened, a place to be vulnerable. There is something terrifying about saying who we are, but something easier about pointing to the stories we love. Those stories sitting at the edge of our hearts told him more about me than anything. I let him listen, let him peer in, tricking myself into believing we weren’t sharing much when really we were sharing everything. He let me, he peered in. We’d talk until 2 in the morning sometimes. Somehow we’d always have read the same thing. How could we not feel the intimacy? How could we not find ourselves so close?
Books spoke their own language. They created their own dialogue for which even the simplest of sentences left something underneath it to be understood. We were in a constant silent conversation with each other. When the New Yorker published Cat Person we sat across from each other and I knew when I spoke about its content he was seeing my own life, my own dating history before him. He could hear what wasn’t there as much as what was. To feel he loved me was wonderful but to be understood was profound. This was how we let ourselves be understood. They said everything we needed them to say. The sharing of libraries became the most intimate exchange of all. Here are the stories that speak to me, these are the stories I long to hear.
While other people’s stories could speak to what has been, they also spoke to what we hope to become. The fragility of dreams so carefully protected if they belonged to someone else. The first time I read a book by Joan Didion I sat at the edge of his bed talking about her essay on John Wayne and the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. It echoed in my head since reading it, I’d been waiting for the opportunity to share it. He sat across from me reading aloud from his book and then gave me the chance to read her work. I collapsed onto the bed as her words came out, ending with my favorite line:
Deep in my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.
The only thing I could do was press the book to my heart like the pages might reach it better that way. It was there he could see what I wanted, what likely many 20 somethings moving to New York and reading Didion wanted. They wanted to write something that did that, something you read to someone you loved and couldn’t contain. He took the book from my hand and flipped through the annotations scanning them once over and nodding. There was nothing either of us could add. For the rest of our relationship, we talked plenty about my writing career. The book had said everything I needed it to say and he had heard.
This language was something we had together. It relied not only on my love of books, but his as well. We cannot have this language without each other. This is the difficult part of the end of relationships. We know of extinct languages, but what of the endangered ones? The fluency between two people lost to distance, to the circumstances of simply not being together anymore. The loneliness of a language you understand but cannot share can be haunting. The quiet, the absence of words, a reminder he isn’t here. The silent space between words is a reminder I’m not being understood. Not in the way I might long for.
Yet we cannot lose entirely what was ours to begin with. I still see the language here. If it is not him understanding, it’s me. I’m allowed to see me too, to come to a clearing and peer into the place we once met. It used to seem simple, if he came back we could go on the way that we used to. I know this is faulty thinking. Nostalgia has a language too. He taught me where to look and I’m grateful. Our love is cumulative; we are the product of where we’ve been, so he’s still around. After a good book passage, I want to call him and talk. I still choose books based on the advice his father gave him which he passed onto me: read something that will teach you something. I take refuge here.
After the end started its arrival I went to a used book store where in the stacks of the one dollar bin I saw Scout and her graphite glasses staring up at me. The book, identical, with its green slash and graffitied interior, looked up at me. I had a feeling then we were over. I couldn’t be sure, but suddenly the language between us had vanished and everything existed on the surface. We were suddenly not the people we had been or else not the ones who could sit and understand each other, make meaning of each other. On the back of the book, his first name was carved below testimonials. There was something terrifying in the coincidence, but once I opened the front cover and saw him and his brother’s name weren’t etched on the inside I knew it was only that, coincidence. I bought the book anyway. If not because no one else would ever buy it, then for the reminder people will see us and understand us if we let them.
The truth too is I don’t know if I long for it anymore, that silent way of speaking. We grow, we change and the ending of something intimate comes when it needs to. Even so, I have accepted that we never said the one thing I had wanted. I love you. I want to be loved. I want the closeness of knowing I’m wanted around. Our relationship taught me that too. I knew where to look. I wait for that moment where I can lend a copy of my book, annotations and all, to someone who understands me. When suddenly deep in their heart from the artificial rain they say that line I long to hear.
An insightful, profound writing that spoke to me. Well done.
Nicely done. An interesting take on a somewhat fleeting romance that never quite blossomed into what the writer needed it to be.
I loved reading this. I will be excited to get to read more of your writing.
I love this Chloe. You are an amazing writer. Keep at it!