Last Fall

This image is a portrait of a stoic young woman with dark hair in a flyaway bun.
Illustration by Jennifer Christensen

She was perfectly average and perfectly plain. That’s what I liked most about her: nondescript light brown hair falling just below her shoulders, a touch of frizz around the frame of her face, brown eyes flanking a smallish nose with small patches of acne that never quite went away after puberty. She did smile a lot too. Her teeth were white and almost straight. The curl of her mouth and the way she parted her lips each time before she spoke hypnotized me. Sometimes I just loved staring at her. It was one of those things I couldn’t exactly explain, a certain welling in my chest that sparked butterflies into dance every time she’d glance up and our eyes connected. She liked to wear the color yellow and drink coffee without sugar and giggle for no reason. Coffee was her thing, not mine. I always tagged along anyways. Once we spent five hours at Myrtle’s Coffee Cup, the dingy neighborhood café just around the corner from her apartment’s crooked cobbly street, where all the baristas knew her. We sat at her favorite table was the one hugging the eastside window where we could watch all the reds and browns and yellows and dark-forest greens twirling outside in autumnal bliss. She gave me a present that day. Catcher In The Rye­. I flipped it open right there and read a random paragraph out loud. Women kill me. They really do. I don’t mean I’m oversexed or anything like that – although I am quite sexy. I just like them, I mean. They’re always leaving their goddam bags out in the middle of the aisle. I looked back up at her. She laughed. God her laugh. I tucked the book in my backpack for later. That was the afternoon the day before—

I knew I was in love well before that day at Myrtle’s. I didn’t tell her for some time because I was afraid she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t love me back. I probably should have told her sooner, maybe it would have helped and she wouldn’t—

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The day I knew I was in love I woke up in her apartment, tangled in limbs and white linen sheets. She loved simple things, simply ordinary things like a bookshelf and a small nightstand and white, sheer curtains that let trickles of muted sunlight filter in, bathing the room in a fuzzy halo. She didn’t have any photos or posters; she wasn’t one for collages or memorabilia. I could never tell if it was for distancing clutter, or distancing the memories themselves. She did have a collection of worn journals on the nightstand’s bottom shelf where I suspect she kept her memories trapped in the lines of pages only she witnessed. I was never invited to these. If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. Though I like to think I knew her better than anyone, I’d only seen her past and some of her thoughts as a stranger invading her gazes. I don’t think anyone was ever fully privy to her internal monologues. Last spring I suggested she bring her parents to my sister’s art gallery. She gave me her special smile that told me my thought was nice, but voiced the effort wouldn’t be worth it. It wasn’t something they would do. That hurt a little. I always thought I wasn’t good enough for her parents. But she never talked much about them. Quickly I could tell any mention of them made her uncomfortable. I never fully understood—

At first this idea of love between us was exciting. And new. And amplified a special energy I know we had, though she certainly never played it out to be a big deal. Nothing seemed to be much of a big deal to her anyways; she had that kind of air around her that masked undertones of concern or subtle currents of discontent that maybe I should have picked up on but didn’t. She didn’t let me. It’s funny how you try and protect people like that. Sometimes I’d catch her staring off into space with her eyes blank, drooped low. Like that one time we cooked stir-fry in her apartment and I went to the bathroom and then came back and she was out on the porch. I could see her profile from the kitchen window. The city lights glowed soft orange behind her as she leaned on the railing. A beautiful silhouette. She didn’t blink, didn’t move. It was like nothing was in front of her. I thought I saw her chin quiver and then I moved around to the balcony door and put my hand on the small of her back and she snapped into a short smile and turned to hug me, too quick to look me in the eye. I wrapped my arms around her with the city blinking below us. I wanted to feel her weight relax into me, her chest exhale and rest on mine. I wanted her to let me take the pressure, take the weight of her sadness, but she held herself up, tense, solid. The only things she let me relieve were the teardrops that soaked into my red shirt, dying it deep scarlet. Now instead of her weight, I’m burdened with the thought that maybe it was my—

But the morning when I first felt the butterflies, bathed in muted and youthful sunlight, watching her surrendered to a deep, innocent sleep, I decided not to care that she kept her stories and our stories sectioned like different chapters of a book. The gentle rise and fall of her bare chest, ever so slightly revealed through the summer sheet, hypnotized me, trapped me in a catch of slight obsession. She had a terrifically nice smile. She really did. Most people have hardly any smile at all, or a lousy one. I know she felt it too, though, because when she opened her eyes at that exact moment, an energy zapped between us and a smile spread over her screamingly average face that transformed her into the most beautiful being I’d ever seen. After that, I could never think of her any other way. That image, her brilliance, has been burned into my memory. If I were a painter I’d paint her a thousand times over with that smile. I only got one good photo of—

Photos are physical manifestations of memories anyways. As long as I’ve got the memory I figure I haven’t much need for material things to quantify it, except I suppose insurance is still required even if you happen to be the best driver. So I went in this very cheap-looking restaurant and had doughnuts and coffee. Only, I didn’t eat the doughnuts. I couldn’t swallow them too well. The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow. One of our dates at the beginning of our relationship actually involved a car accident. Maybe that was some omen, but I still remember her smile even then. I’d pulled out of a parking lot when someone cut a corner and crushed my left fender. She jumped out to assess the damage, laughing because I finally had an excuse for a paint job to cover the unfortunate green tone of my car. The ability to turn something negative into something positive is a skill not everyone bothers to develop. Another reason she was special. I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I laugh now at the time she dropped an entire carton of ice cream in the grocery store and it exploded and we froze, unsure, then burst into hysterics as the old man custodian with blue slacks pulled far above his belly button rushed to the scene, scaring another customer and setting off a domino chain of toppling human bodies and grocery supplies all along the tile. Her laugh could stop my heart. I almost wish—

Things like that people don’t see at a glance or even a twice-over-double-take. Things like laughs and twinkles and sighs and special glances and even silence take time and energy to understand and appreciate. That’s what makes understanding someone so special—you can’t understand everyone on the cosmic level of love. It would be impossible to harness that much energy. You have to be selective and persistent and attentive in ways that make it actually impossible to attend to just anyone filtering through your life. Every once in a while something clicks and that time spent selecting and persisting and attending becomes more valuable than any seconds lost in reveries. See, time isn’t lost when you’re in love; time is deepened and widened and expanded to fit all the inexplicable sensations with the millions of words it would take to convey a single thought. In love, tangles of energy have room to unravel and blossom and spin a web of a hammock so that you can lie down, hands clasped behind your head, creating a pillow for the mind, safe to wander and explore, rest and wonder. I’ll never stop wondering if I—

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We used to play a game called Would You Rather; a maybe-childish but enhanced rendition of the middle school pastime. Would You Rather go on a walk with Indiana Jones or Lucas Skywalker? Would You Rather sleep through Christmas or New Years? Would You Rather give up chocolate or coffee? She really loved coffee. No room for milk. Just sugar. Would You Rather have dinner with Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King Jr? We both said Martin Luther King Jr. Would You Rather spend your final hour of life at a dinner party with family and friends or jumping out of an airplane? I said dinner party and she said skydiving. I understand why now. It makes so much more sense. I think about this and all I want to do is cry and rewind and, damn, could things change—

Would You Rather spend 15 minutes on the moon, or a month in Costa Rica? We both said a month in Costa Rica. How nice that would be. Would have been. Did she think this would be easy for me? I think about it all and I want to scream. At her. At him. She left me. How can I carry this all alone now? I’ll never be able to shed her weight. I want to peel her off now, but I can’t. She’s dragging, crushing me, crippling my spine and maybe that explains why I can’t get up, can’t get out, can’t think—

I resent her. And resent myself for resenting—

Would You Rather be paralyzed or unable to talk? We spent an hour going over the pros and cons, weighing each and finally determining the inability to freely express would be far more agonizing than the inability to move independently. It’s funny how much you can glean from making people choose this or that. Almost as though the subconscious is allowed to come out to play in a way less intimidating than usual. I probably would have left her had she chosen Skywalker—someone who likes Indiana Jones must have qualities that I like too. Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry. God, her laugh, it could kill me. I almost wish it had. Would You Rather have a disease preventing you from growing hair, or a disease that made you grow hair uncontrollably? I never got to ask—

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When I was 20 my father told me to follow my heart and when I found the girl for me, I should make things work. He told me to make things happen because otherwise I’d be twiddling my thumbs in ten years wondering nothing but an infinite regression of “what ifs.” Sometimes the best things don’t happen organically. The best things are what we take to be the most important. Dad always said people do what’s important to them. Simply letting things happen naturally can be a sly excuse for not taking risks on the things you expect to be painful to lose. Sometimes if you want something to be, you have to make it be. The first time I brought her over for dinner, Dad fell in love with her too. It was hard not to.

I tried not to read too much into the fact that she didn’t want me to meet her dad. But the thought was always on my mind, especially near the end. What more did I have to do to impress him, make me worthy of his introduction? I was always afraid I wasn’t good enough.

I finally did meet her father, though. I saw him standing up at the front, near the dark oak coffin, with the rest of the family. Tall. Firmly pressed black suit. Short hair, golden like hers. Face slightly puffy, red. Pursed lips. Legs shoulder width apart, solid, knees locked, unwavering. Brown eyes. Square shoulders. He didn’t look anyone in the eye. I shook his hand as just another in the crowd.

She didn’t leave a traditional note—not one that was easily found by just anyone. I knew it was safe to go to the funeral because of the message she scrawled across the final page of Catcher In The Rye that last day at Myrtle’s, surrounded by vivacity in autumn colors, soft and golden and light. She didn’t tell them who I was. They didn’t know about me specifically. All she told them was that I was a girl.

She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.

1 Comment
  1. A beautiful tribute– and an incredibly brave one too. The author should be very proud. Thank you for your courage, wisdom, and love

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