Picture the girl. See her pull the black cardigan closed in a tight fist as she shoves the heavy door open with her shoulder. The warm evening air hits her like a slap in the face. As she steps out onto the sidewalk and sees the sunset bleeding orange and pink, broad streaks of red and purple, she thinks That’s it. Childhood is over.
Imagine the boy. He’s crossing the field that leads up to the school, hands in his pockets, an unhurried stride. Sunlight refracts against the clouds in a blaring whiteness. He’s gazing past the goal posts toward the ravine, shutting out the glare with a slight frown. Note the way his lip curls in a grin that betrays some imagined, not unpleasant possibility colliding with what he assumes is unlikely. An awareness when he sees her; an unexpected surprise.
Know that what you are seeing and what is actually happening are two separate realities. While she stands perfectly still at his side she is kicking down doors, breaking glass, circling in a vicious monologue. Feel the tears stream down her chin, the damp spot at the trim of her neckline. “I’m sorry, we have to close now,” the funeral director touches her arm. The tears turn cold at her throat; the words orbiting her brain are frantic.
It’s hard to know who sees who first on this muggy May afternoon. But there she is, passing through the mouth of the ravine under boughs of alder trees, their branches nearly touching forty feet above her head. Hear the click of a latch falling into place, the moment of recognition between them.
Watch as she takes in his expression, the slight frown that first struck her last spring on an overcast day. She hopes this isn’t a face that registered any pain—that he is just in the midst of a good dream, keening toward something lovely he didn’t foresee. In addition to the body in the coffin she can feel his presence in the room, sometimes here, sometimes there, as receptive to her as he ever was. At the same time he’s high above the roof, heading over treetops to a place so warm, so bright, he has to squint a little to find his way.
Wind back the clock. They’re thirteen. Feel the prickly sensation on her neck; he’s staring at her across the row. When she glances over he looks up at the ceiling, assumes an innocent smile. A moment later he appears. “Give me your watch! I’ll synchronize it with mine.” Then he whispers “We’ll be the only ones who know exactly when the bell rings!” Back at his desk he focuses his gaze until she looks over. Smiles as he silently mouths the countdown 10-9-8-7! Hear the abrupt slam of books timed precisely with the bell’s ring, the rattle as he leaps out of his desk and scoots past her. He is always grinning, always the first one out the door.
See her stand, unmoving, in this frigid room with him. She can easily bring to mind the moment he approached her in the hallway last week. A rosy heat climbed her neck; he still had that bewildering effect on her. He laughs when she says, “Hey! Sorry for throwing raisins at you today.” He, of course, was the one who started it—and she isn’t really sorry. Feel the mutual relief, the resolution, with this small but meaningful exchange. They are OK finally; both free. Watch him glide toward the door that leads out to the street, exiting the school for the last time.
Observe how the spring lengthens, the creek recedes, the edges of the ravine advance with each passing day. The girl is living in a snake’s body, swelling against the edges, ready to crack; she keeps her eyes low. Hear the call of crickets rubbing their legs together as she strides toward him in jeans that cling to her skin in the ceaseless humidity. See her cross her arms as she nears him, a question forming in her mind.
Watch the transformation. The muscles in her face turn stone hard as she approaches. Her jaw locks, she can’t open her mouth; she can hardly swallow. Her eyes jump from feature to feature, unable to take in the entire scene at once. It is undeniably him in that mahogany casket, head resting on a white pillow, hands folded together. But at the same time it isn’t him at all. This is a wax figure made up for Madame Tussauds Museum of Lost Loves.
Sense the affirmation all around her. Their paths form a large X as they meet in the middle of the field, smile and pass; the joggers racing around the track circle them in a huge O. The rush of the creek, the scent of lilies coiling around the fence, the cloying pollen at the back of her throat all say, yes. There is yes in the way he looks at her, too. His smile is devastatingly open, eyes full of light. Mischief and shyness in equal measure, competing for position.
“Please don’t touch the body,” the funeral director says. She has never, ever touched the body. He was shy; she was attuned to his shyness. Not once did she hug him; not once did he reach for her hand. She wishes she could wash the cuts on his skin, say Everything’s OK. That she could revisit last summer and ask him to meet her at the edge of the ravine. At the time she was terrified. What if she’d misread him, misread all of nature? If she asked and he said no she would have died.
Imagine the girl, a week from her sixteenth birthday, her heart bursting wide open now every time she sees him. It’s an explosion that includes fragments of sky, thin twirling clouds, the flat fanning fingers of cedar branches. The rising bitter scent of dandelions in the moist heat doesn’t bother her; like the sour skunk cabbage warmed in the ravine’s languid closet, every aspect of nature—the unpleasant and the sweet—only reinforce her feelings for him. It’s all part of the same colossal revelation.
Observe that in spite of the architecture and other details—high ceilings, soft lighting, and a proliferation of white flowers—this place is still too cold; it still feels a bit like a cellar. She notices through the chapel door that he, himself, is wearing a jacket. It’s the windbreaker he was wearing the last time she saw him. When she thinks of him now he will always be wearing it. A cool sunset shade of pink; a distressed tiger pattern.
Watch the boy open the door for the girl. They fall into stride, walk down the hall to her locker. When she rattles the lock, unable to remember her combination, note his expression—eyes wide, an innocent amusement borne of disbelief. See the colour rise in her cheeks as she turns the dial back to zero. When she finally bangs the door open he points to the picture taped inside. “Hey, I know that band. My sister likes them!” See her go slack with gratitude. No matter how foolish she is, he won’t let her feel that way; he’ll point somewhere else. Like his eyes and his voice, everything about him is warm. Like summer, like a fever, like the surface of her skin when she thinks about him.
See the girl lying in bed. The light is on, her body turned away from the window that faces the ravine. Her head feels like it could detonate; the constant pressure against the inside of her skull has nowhere to go. She must have slept but she doesn’t remember. She can’t remember anything except this: he appeared early one morning before the sun rose. He was happy, radiating light. “I didn’t die,” he told her and then she opened her eyes.
Feel the sun’s heat trapped behind thick clouds as they walk away from the school, back to their houses, on the last Friday of June. The thinning band of air hums as the cloud ceiling further descends, invoking a migraine tension. It feels like a sickness to be in this heat. The only thing that might help would be to cool off in the shade or a basement, to find a place to lie down.
There she is at the foot of the stairs, staring up at his closed bedroom door. She would like to open it, sit on the edge of his bed, run a hand over his things. She wants to see what he brought home from Bellingham on the day he died—new clothes with the tags still on, the CDs he chose for the trip. She would like to know if he left his bed messy or if it was neatly made up before he drove to the border. She wants to turn down the sheets—she always imagined them sky blue—climb in, close her eyes and cry until her head and heart are hollow. To sleep there, undisturbed, until the day of the funeral.
Imagine the boy sitting on the kitchen stool, kicking his foot against the cupboard, watching his cat bat a small toy with its paws. “No one has ever asked me so many questions before,” he teases, thinking she must know by now that he doesn’t mind; he likes talking to her. He tells her about his trip to Holland a few summers ago. “It was so weird. I’d never been there before but when I walked through my aunt’s house, every time I turned a corner everything was exactly the way I thought it would be.” She sees the old beams and rafters, the blue and white tablecloth, oranges piled in a round wooden bowl. She likes that they, too, keep turning into rooms they’ve never been in. And sometimes, a second before, she knows exactly what will be there.
Picture the girl standing on the threshold, the first and only time she’ll set foot in his house. From the entranceway she can picture him sitting in the kitchen, holding the phone to his ear, stroking the cat in his lap. Hear the strange high-pitched sound that turns her attention to the top of the stairs. “His cat’s been crying outside his door,” his sister tells her. The phone rings. His mom picks up the receiver, listens, gently sets it back in its cradle. It happens two, three more times. “The phone keeps ringing but no one’s there,” his sister explains. “We think he’s playing tricks on us. He probably wants to talk to you.”
See the girl press the phone to her ear as she stretches out on her bed, listening, twirling the white cord in her fingers. She turns the pages of the yearbook with her free hand, traces a heart around his picture then flips to the back page. She can still see him sitting on the bench in the hallway on the last day of school; his left ankle resting on his right knee, her yearbook leaned against his thigh. He misspelled her name, but she was watching him. It must have made him nervous. And who among the students and teachers milling down the hallway didn’t feel the pressure, too. Her reverberating sadness as he wrote I won’t see you in the fall, but if I’m ever at your school I’ll look for you.
Watch her step down off the bus that pulls up beside the school. The coral sky—high visibility, zero chance of precipitation—is astonishing. She is enraged to witness it, wishes she could storm out of the theatre and get her money back. Give her a grey horizon all week, the air thick and heavy as incense. An atmosphere so dense, so hard to breathe, it could suffocate the birds that won’t stop singing.
Note the time. It’s 7 p.m. sharp when the phone rings. He promised he’d call—“What’s your number? I’ll call you on Tuesday. I’ll give you a hundred dollars if I don’t!” She only half-expected him to; wondered if this was his way of drawing a line, then gently receding. She picks up and he says her name; his breath is right in her ear. Her own breath is suspended when he tells her “I transferred schools! We’ll be together in the fall.”
This is how she finds out.
It’s a Sunday morning. The sun is bright, a cloudless sky. Her dad turns down Leclair Drive, puts the car into park, and she ascends the marble steps to her friend’s front door. He pokes his head out and says, “Can you come in? I’ve got some bad news.” The hair rises on her arms as she senses a sudden drop in temperature. “Pick up the phone,” he says and points to the receiver resting on its side. But she doesn’t want to. She can hear a hysterical girl crying all the way across the room.
Feel her insides go soft. She is falling and falling. Her legs bow like they’re made of clay. Her mind turns hectic with speed. It can’t be him, she thinks. Other boys at school have the same name. She will fight knowing, but when the initial shock wears off she’ll realize that somehow, deep inside her, she knew. Three weeks earlier she dreamed she was standing at his grave, weeping. Now as her heart begins to careen and spin out she thinks But I loved him. I never stopped. I still do.
Hold onto this scene a moment longer. It’s important.
The moment she learns he is dead is the moment everything changes: her brain, her heart, the future. Time itself. April 1, 1990 at 11 a.m.—the day they turned the clocks forward—is the moment she begins looking backward and never stops.