Morgan picked me up in a borrowed car. She called it Bella. Bella wasn’t pretty. The bare trees slipped fast by the passenger window. I had flown straight from my last gig at a festival in Arizona into the pit of winter in the northeast. Our dead college town, a quiet time for our private reunion. Brown. The ground and the leaves. Her coat. Her coat in the car as she drove with it on. She was my… So much was a valley in upstate New York. The rocky slopes turned our road into a valley on which the sun was setting before it set.
In the airport at the baggage claim, I waited, and we couldn’t find each other. By the time I saw her, everyone else had gone. Everyone else was gone when I saw her. This was the kind of thing I had come to tell her. She was wrapped tight in her coat, and instead of talking, I hugged her. I could tell by the scent of her hair that she was going to lie to me about quitting smoking. It was a long hug that said I cared, and it surprised me how easy it was after three years. We later told each other that it would have been the right moment for a kiss and that we both wanted to, though that was a lie. I told myself I’d tell her before getting drawn in. I would rather know I could talk to her for the rest of my life than spend the weekend together in bed. The bag I carried was small. I did not have to check it. We only used the baggage claim as a landmark. We walked to the car like friends. We got in and sped by the leafless trees. We talked about how strange it felt to be in town. How much it hurt to be in town. I always thought it would be silly to time-travel alone, and it would. It’s like a Twilight Zone where you get what you want but it’s not what you want.
We had dinner together. This place she wanted to take me to she picked in advance, though I don’t know when. She liked to trash people who ate at upscale restaurants. But she had to eat at upscale restaurants to support her hobby. She who had unknowingly inspired two dozen songs that propelled me from our college bars into other towns’ bars and an endless string of festival tours, now in chandelier glow right across the table. The undefined “you” that my success depended on. Person stripped of identity in pronoun, allowing my listeners to project whatever they wanted, either for themselves or for me. And she was not what they would let me have, not something they wanted to align with my face and my lyrics. I watched for signs that anyone might recognize me then, although this sport-coat set was not my likely audience. We ate fast and talked mostly through our food, inventing dirty stories about the people around us.
“It’s your birthday” “It’s not my birthday it’s your birthday” “That’s not what I heard,” and so that went until one of us went home with a piece of cake and a bit of embarrassment.
Home was the apartment of an old professor who’d given her the key, under what arrangement I don’t know, who always left for the winter. We were here to fill empty in-between spaces. The cake waited on the counter while we went to bed. After putting it off for as long as we politely could, we got down to business. This was, after all, not about nostalgia, but it was. But we said nostalgia would be for another time. When there were more people around so we could pretend we barely knew each other while standing on the campus green under tents with plastic cups and tuning out a speech from a dean. That’s what nostalgia was for. This was something else.
The next morning we lay around in our pajamas. Like live-in partners, we got casual with our feet on the coffee table and crumbs on the couch. Hair a mess and the bills piling up. Once we’d fallen into a rhythm, I didn’t want to throw it off. And the urge to tell her faded, began to seem like the product of time on the road. A fantasy to fill a lonely hotel room. How desperate, my visions of her radiating gratitude as I told her every melody was for her: my overdue and ultimately apparent confession melting us both to a puddle on the floor. Watching her get dressed, here, real in front of me, I remembered how the unspoken was always our thing.
She had to meet a friend that afternoon, so we got to playact through the introductions as I was an accessory who happened to be in town. “We just ran into each other. How funny, huh? Leaving today, though.” I played innocent, dumb, dragged around. Morgan asked if the anarchy club was still alive on campus. The friend laughed and said, of course. The club whose existence depended on never having a meeting maintained a perfect record. Morgan said it was her greatest achievement and it always went on her résumé. I downplayed my career, and they were happy to leave it at that. It was always either invasive curiosity or deliberate disinterest peppered with jealousy. And we sat around this girl’s apartment while I played bored out of my mind picking at the walls. Disinterested, barely able to even fake the impression that I cared a word about what they were saying. “Mm. Mm-hmm” when they tried to pull me into the conversation. This was nostalgia.
“That was a bullshit conversation,” I said, hands stuffed in my pockets as we walked back after.
“I know, I hate that girl,” she said. “I was hoping her roommate would be there.”
“Might have been more fun for me,” I said.
“Like you need it,” she answered, and she tousled my hair, something she would never have done. That I would have hated any time before now. This was the illustration I would use if my bigger words failed.
Crunch went the sidewalk ice under our feet, and I turned my focus to keep my balance. We kept skirting the edges of the area that used to be ours, though we were making a slight invasive campaign now. I glanced at the campus steeple poking the sky, and I imagined the younger hordes at our backs, driving us away with empty cans and wads of paper. Paranoid villagers warding off the truth, casting us out of even the shadow cast by the place. But we passed quietly and willingly, collars up, a couple of spies.
That night we watched a movie under a blanket with nothing on. With no light on. With the only food in the place last night’s cake, but that was just a silhouette, where it sat out of the glow of the TV. Squeezed on the couch without a space between us, “I wish we could sleep like this every night.”
“No, you don’t,” she said. “You didn’t then.”
We didn’t. We wouldn’t have. Neither of us wanted to.
“I wish, but I don’t want.”
“Oh, well yeah.”
Our faces reflected blue in the light from the screen. We hardly moved.
The next morning in front of the mirror, I grabbed her from behind and held her in a pretend pose.
“Is this what it would look like?”
“Doesn’t suit us.”
But we stood there, my head over her shoulder, gazing anyway. Trying on something you would never ever buy not ever. That space of the bathroom dense like a jungle for a moment. I left her getting dressed, and I went down to grab us some bagels.
I stood on the corner, and I looked toward campus just a few hundred yards away, and I felt that taking-for-grantedness again. That way I used to feel about her when she was always available when I knew I had a place to indulge whatever it was she brought out in me. I thought of leaving just then. Just dropping that bag and spilling coffee to steam on the sidewalk and taking off, pretending for the ten-minute walk to the train that I was hurrying to catch a ride from a car full of friends in front of my old apartment, that I had better plans. Then abandoning my old route and getting on the train, only after passing the last possible stop would I second-guess what I had just done, but then board the next plane to Charlotte for a week of true downtime at home and tell myself that was a fitting exclamation mark on the whole thing.
Back upstairs, she brushed the snow off my shoulders, I kicked off my running shoes, and we went back to bed. Then we re-enacted getting up for the day again as if our goal for the weekend were to perfect that routine.
When the afternoon came on, with the sun pouring in through the windows, she asked a question that made me look out in the direction of the steps that carried me on cold nights to her room. And then think about when I ditched her for lunch again and again and got caught with my friends. “I don’t know,” I said. Before I could say more, she said she knew, and she forgave, and I said, “Well isn’t that obvious?” and she slapped me.
In our waning hours, we cooked dinner together with groceries that we bought on a shopping trip where everyone looked at us like a couple in love, from the jealous cashiers to the captious old. We talked about how funny it was to go around doing that, messing with people’s perception like that. Give them a smiling face and a slap on the ass and people will think you’re a fairy tale romance right there in the Acme parking lot. Everyone was so easily deceived but us.
Morgan had been reading about superfoods, so my plate was filled with deep orange and green hues next to some grain the color of boredom. We sat at a round table outside of the kitchen with someone else’s music on. Silverware clinking on plates arrhythmically. After staring down at the remnants for a while, I got up and put my coat on with no warning. It seemed for a second like a more natural way to tell her, like pushing myself toward the end would squeeze the words out of me. She got up and put her coat on wordlessly, and we stood staring at each other’s coated selves like images in mirrors. In the middle of the living room, all dressed to go, three hours before my boarding time.
Our last moments dribbled on, cruising departures under heavy cement overhangs and fluorescent light. I didn’t know where to begin. I only knew that any big feeling I’d ever had dwindled on the air when I spoke it, but in obscure lyrics and simple chords they swelled big enough to fill an auditorium. Like a day-old piece of gum I had been working over this tortured line about how sad it was that we got along so well. My attempt to put a stable period on the whole thing. I swallowed it when she stopped at the curb.
Once again and for the last time I left it, suspended. I sentenced us to wait for those sanctioned occasions where we would greet with a smile and one-armed hug, like all the old friends admitting they no longer cared for each other with their selfish run-on talk. Neither of us yet aware of those nights when we would call each other, weak and dissatisfied, but always incongruously, never timed right with the other’s intentions.