I know I shouldn’t be contacting you like this, but fear not. I’m not chasing you – I know you’re married now. Honestly, I have a good life. I had a good husband, and my daughter, now almost grown, is a pure delight. I’m a tenured professor teaching what I love in the state of my birth; I own a house and a car and a cat and some investment funds. I’m in good health. Who has the right to ask for more?
Look, I stayed away. I avoid reading all poetry published after 1988, and especially that written by New Zealand poets, which is not difficult because I teach the Modern American Novel. I politely decline Massey University’s repeated query as to whether I’d like to receive the alumni magazine.
I resisted the siren call of Google search as long as I could. One day not long ago, something came over me. I was thinking about autumn, about fallen leaves and the smell of apples, and the way the sky gets so deep in the fall. A great wave of longing for you swept over me, and I sat there in my ergonomic, university-provided desk chair and had to close my eyes and hold on to the armrests for balance.
When I could breathe again, my fingers found their way to the keyboard and I typed in your name, just your name, and I hit Enter. And then when I opened my eyes to look, there were too many entries to count. I skimmed them. Mostly they were to do with that critically-acclaimed collection of poems from 1993, or the one from 1997, or that anthology from 2005. I knew of the published stuff, but I was looking for something more personal. Congratulations on those, by the way. Well-deserved, I’m sure, though I haven’t read them.
But there was one entry, from an alumni organization, that jumped out. It listed your name and the year of your bachelor’s degree, and a doctorate I knew you must have gotten later as well as the master’s degree we both earned at Massey. It said Nicholas Somerfield, the poet, and his wife Deirdre Manning were the proud parents of their first child, a son named William Edward. It also mentioned that you were teaching at the University of Auckland, and your wife was an associate at one of the downtown law firms.
I did some math. Young William Edward will now be nearly nine, a good ten years younger than my daughter. I’ve no doubt that he’s got at least one sibling by now; I can’t imagine your not being an enthusiastic father. I’d have thought you’d marry someone quite different than a career woman, though: a former student, perhaps, or one of those society girls your father kept throwing at you. A fellow professor, maybe – someone you’d write poetry for. But perhaps your wife has time for literature, too? She kept her maiden name, as I did not. I’d bet she keeps a neat house, and the children go to boarding school, appropriately equipped, and the maid does the difficult work, and all you have to do is prepare for your classes. You read Rilke to her in the evenings, or Neruda.
Certainly you must have more children by now, don’t you? Two boys and a girl, or two girls and that boy, young William Edward… I can see them in my head now, running over hills at your father’s manor house over their summer break, pulling a kite up into the air. The kite is red. The children are tall, like you, and they have your coloring. It’s a boy and two girls, I think: young William Edward, and Isobel and Catherine. They have long tanned legs and their dark hair is mussed by the wind, and your wife Deirdre makes clucking noises when they come in and pulls a proper boar-bristle hairbrush out of the sideboard drawer and tidies them before the dinner gong. Deirdre must be tall too, at least she is in my picture of her, and she has enigmatic gray eyes and a firm mouth. She’s the disciplinarian. You’d be out flying the kite with them, except that when they were going out with it, imploring you to come with them, she’d put her hand on the small of your back and told them, “No, Daddy and I have something to talk about.” And all the afternoon while the children are outside flying the kite and gently squabbling about whose turn it is, and who was pushing, was-not, was-too, you and Deirdre are up in that third-floor room in your parents’ house (you’d call it the second floor), the one with the t?tara tree outside the window, and you’re awake-dreaming in the bed, sunlight and leaf-shadows across your bodies. She is slender and long-bodied, and when you kiss her, you do not have to bend down far at all. You match. She fits you. Your family approves of her.
I would not jar such happiness loose, even assuming that I could. From this distance halfway across the world, from this distance a score of years long? Pure idiocy. I closed the browser window and laughed at myself, and I never went looking for you again. I forgot you too.
Except that I didn’t.
I buried my memories of you, for Tony’s sake. Tony was a good man, and I would never have hurt him by remembering you too vividly, or too openly. My memories of you haunted me only in the early morning, in what I call the Dreaming Hour, that time just before the sleeper wakes with the color and shape of her dream still on her. Sunshine and apples and fallen leaves, and the smell of your leather coat. Wet woolens and library books. Violets. The way my head fit into that hollow on your chest. When I would wake with tears on my face, I always knew I’d been dreaming of you.
Now Tony is gone, and it seems that when they dug his grave, they accidentally disinterred you. You rise like a ghost from a shelf of books, arguing Housman to my Frost, or Virginia Woolf to my John Irving. I make a cup of tea and think of the lovely Caravaggio shape of your mouth, and then I look at the clock and see I’m almost late for my 2:10 class. When rain snakes down the glass of my office window and the air is wet and clean, I sense you are behind me, shaking off your mac and drying your hair with the kitchen towel.
I smell pipe smoke, and I look around for you. An autumn night begins to fall, and I look at the blue-ink sky and think, who has eyes that color? No one save Colin. So maybe I dreamed you. Maybe there was never an Us.
Did you ever love me at all? I just want to know. That’s why I’m writing to you now. I don’t want to see you. I want to know why you let me go.
I remember how we used to talk – right from the beginning we were finishing each other’s sentences and nodding madly at each other, sentences spilling like water over Niagara Falls, while our friends looked at each other with raised knowing eyebrows. How we talked and talked! Our friend Gregory told me once that he couldn’t fathom it, he’d known you all through your undergraduate years and he’d never heard that many words come out of your mouth, because usually they were spilling onto some notebook instead, to be secreted inside your rucksack and never seen, until published in the university’s literary magazine.
But you talked to me. And you touched me. You were so shy that the first time you kissed me, you closed your eyes and nearly missed my mouth. But I taught you how to kiss – we taught each other how to kiss – and in a short time, “shy,” was the very last word I’d have used to describe your touch. We were shameless in consuming each other. We’d break off some discussion of Nikki Giovanni to take off our clothes and be together. We couldn’t touch each other enough, or too often. It was like our talking, it flowed over itself and grew and caught us in the floodwaters. We’d touch and talk, talk and touch, before and over and through and during and after and in. We never stopped, we couldn’t stop. There was always something more to say, some caress to bestow or receive, some closeness to achieve.
And you held my heart cupped in your hands, all fragile and precious. You held me and you spoke to me in your beautiful voice, extravagant love promises that I never doubted for a second because I returned them without reservation.
But now, I look back and hear the things about which you never spoke, echoing empty spaces in the House of Us : your childhood loneliness. Your mother’s medications, her plastic surgeries, her remoteness. Your frustration with your work: in the charcoal grill, you once burned a four-inch stack of typewritten poems, eight months’ worth of meticulous labor, with a darkness in your eyes. “It was rubbish, all of it,” was all you said when I realized what you’d done. You never mentioned your father’s sneering and unjustified disdain for all four of his sons. Once, your older brother – David the handsome, David the promising young barrister most any father would be proud of – said something of it to you in my hearing, his tone bitter and hurt. You turned away. You said nothing.
You were silent on the subject of my leaving. I’d finished the course of Master of Arts studies and my thesis; I’d overstayed the length of my scholarship and was running out of stipend money. My student visa was set to expire. I had to go back home. I told you all this, more than once.
You said nothing. You let me go.
Six of those poems you burned? You had written them for me, you’d said, “Sara, you’ve been my muse.” You’d said that love had inspired you. Those were my poems, I protested then, in grief and disbelief. You said nothing. They were gone, bitter ash on the wind. One of them I knew by heart, the others I only remember in snatches. I won’t quote them to you now, though they will burn, words of flame, in my heart until I die. On windy evenings, I yet hear you whisper them in my ear.
In the airplane lavatory, going home, my eyes swollen from hours of crying, I poured what remained of my little upside-down-heart bottle of Chamade into the toilet, and I flushed it. It fell into the Pacific Ocean somewhere, that scent of Me With You, and my tears fell with it.
My grief: You let me go. I just want to know why. You let me go without word or touch, without farewell or blessing or even curse, you let me go still loving you, my heart cut out of my chest and still beating. How did you do such a thing? How could you?
Of course I won’t send this.
But please tell me, if you know: How do I stop loving you?
(All rights reserved. Image is Keyboard Blur by striatic at Flickr, some rights reserved.)