He leans against the wall outside my daughters’ school. His camo pants worn soft and thin at the knee and hem. His camo tee shirt looks new and is crisply tucked into the waist of the worn pants, cinched together with a belt the color of a long desert road. His brown boots aren’t new, but buffed to resemble something like new. I wonder what he’s trying to blend into. What he’s trying to hide from. He looks up and catches me in a soft stare meant for you.
At the library, I pull into the only spot I can find, right next to the mostly blue truck. Rust edges its door panels, creeping inward. It seems to always be sunny on the days when I collect these sketches of everything except you, these things that fill in the background and leave an empty spot that almost looks like you.
All those years I spent in libraries. And you never came along. Remember the house when we were finally in a place safe enough to walk to everything without a parent? You’d go bowl, and I would sit in the library, reading, until it was dusk and stopped being as safe to walk home. I’d go to find you at the bowling alley and end up walking home alone.
His jaw looks like it has been set hard since birth, skin stretched taut along his bone, teeth clenched against other teeth. There is no room for the softness of tongue or cheek. There is not even stubble on his chin or above his lip. No spot missed with the razor he probably replaces every time. No nick of red anywhere, except for the small veins in his eyes that hint at squinting or rubbing or crying.
I smile at him in a way that says, “Remember the tree house our dad built us in the greenbelt? The one that probably wasn’t safe or legal, but we climbed up barefoot and took turns using the walkie-talkie to interrupt the neighbors’ phone calls?” I smile a story at him because I want the hard line of him to curve. But we don’t share a dad and maybe he’s never done anything barefoot, so his chin stays hard and clenched.
The edge of it reflects the sun, which is only just now burning through the haze. The logo is red and blue, the pull tab is missing, snapped off. The creases where it’s been crushed almost look like the imprint of a hand. But maybe it was a boot that crushed it into the cement. It bends in the middle, doubled over like it’s been punched in the stomach. This empty can of beer conjures a tenderness in me that wasn’t there before.
Memories are like that. Tender in a way that didn’t exist when it happened.
This one is across the apples from me at the farmer’s market. His beard is rusty, not red, but not quite brown. The thick, wiry hair curls a little at the ends, and he scratches his chin through it with one hand while the other finds the right apples. The bill of his baseball cap is pulled back just a little now that he’s not on the road, in what I assume is a truck, driving into the autumn sun. Now that I look again, his beard matches the heirloom tomatoes I’ve moved on to. He’s at the eggs, and I want to know how many he buys, does he cook them himself, does he eat them scrambled the way mom made them on the weekends?
I turn away to pull my own almost-rusty hair into a ponytail and when I turn back, he’s gone. He’s just like you.
The mechanic’s hands are creased with black grease, and his nails are short and raw around the edges. He probably goes home and scrubs them, not until they are clean, but until they won’t leave black fingerprints all over the house. Maybe he tries to keep the house free of reminders of his work, a thing separate and clean.
Your nailbrush always sat on the edge of the sink. White plastic handle and white bristles stained grey. When you’ve worked, it’s been with your hands. I could go on: thick calluses, black oil under fingernails, grease caked between fingers, cracked nails, burn scars across knuckles, split palms.
Does he run his hands over the body of his work at the end of his day? Have you ever done that?
I kick at the memory of you like a tire. Checking to see that it’s solid enough. It never is.
The flier is stiff with age and re-drying after the rains come rushing down the rough wood electrical pole it is stapled to. The picture of the missing person is in black and white and indistinguishable, like it’s been re-copied too many times. I wouldn’t know how to identify whoever it is, but suddenly, I want to. I want to take to the streets in search of this person. I want to call their family with good news. I want to take the flier, but I don’t.
Instead, these words form the outline of you by filling in the background. These words form a boundary around what is missing. Maybe all words do that.
I’m working to create memories that aren’t there. Constructing them, piece by piece, like you do with the skeletons of trucks. Scraps from where you can find them. I’ll keep putting together these scraps until the scene is complete, even if you aren’t there.
Is it possible to grieve someone who isn’t dead? Is it possible to grieve for someone who isn’t you, but reminds me of you?
Now I’m back to the mechanic’s hands. They were rough, thick hands. But by morning, I’ve forgotten the shape of his face. It’s only been hours, and it’s gone; you’ve been gone years and somehow I think I can still talk about you like I know you.
Maybe this is what grief is, circling the unknown, getting closer, closer, close enough to poke it with a stick. And then recoil, circling again.
Or maybe it’s like walking into the dark without a light, sliding your foot forward tentatively, afraid of what it might hit, hoping your eyes will adjust. And then finding out eyes don’t work in this kind of darkness.
I don’t remember much, and I don’t remember this fully, but here it is anyway: the handgun. Black and cold in the cup holder of the truck. This image will always be there as I put coffee or gum or gloves in the cup holder. It rattled at the turns and bumps. It had been years since I’d seen you, we’d been only kids then and were barely adults now, but you were the kind of new adult with a gun in his cup holder, and I was the kind of new adult with fear at all the unknown, the unpredictable. You. You were unpredictable. And look how you became the gun in this memory. How this sketch of a gun I saw, and feared once, became a sketch of you.
There are thousands of sketches. Some only one word, some thick and heavy, others overwrought with forced memory. I’ve edited out the ones that sear. That’s the thing about memories, they can be edited. Maybe these sketches of everything except you are a way of saying I can keep parts of you out of my memories.
The long pause in a conversation hangs in the air like a feather between our faces. People ask me if you exist, and I have to pause. I’m not sure you do. And if you do, I’m not sure where or how except as this pause. And every pause after it.
I’ve scoured the faded and bent childhood photos I have, the dictionary, and the tones in voices on the other end of the phone, looking for the shape of you that makes sense.
The last time we spoke, I was out to a dinner I couldn’t really afford in DC with a friend, because we promised we would treat ourselves during our rare time together. The children at the table next to us were slurping oysters from the shell, and my phone buzzed. A number I thought might be yours showed up. There you were, still borderless. Slurring and crackling from some bar. Trying to tell me that nothing I’d been told was true. I tried to say I had seen the bruises on her body with my own eyes, your name on the banned list behind the bar, but I just said, “Okay, okay. Just please take care of yourself.” And then you started arguing with someone in the background. I was left alone with my friend and those kids, slurping their oysters loudly, laughing, not knowing how many ways they’d leave each other.
It was a hot, hazy day and the sky was condensing like boiled sugar, so I took my daughters down to the river. Even the 5-minute walk felt too much to bear. The river snakes from the mountains and weaves past our house; we can take a short trail through the blackberry brambles and down a sandy slope to the rocky shore. We jump from a log, over and over. I dive beneath the water to cool my head, and a fish slides past against my leg. And there I am, down at the creek by one of our childhood houses with you, learning to build lean-tos and fire, to catch crawfish, to be silent in your presence.
Where the glass broke, it looked like an exploding star. Each arm of the star fell in a jagged piece to the ground in front of the sagging house. The window would never be whole again, and the glass shimmered cold in the night, reflecting the moon. A reflection of a reflection. A house that wanted to be a home at some point, now broken. Someone could come in and fix this. I collect some of the bigger pieces of glass and find an old metal trash can to throw them in. I’m trying to find beauty and redemption in this scene, but the more I turn it over the colder it gets. A broken window in a broken house in a broken world.
Then this sensation: my own body, working and warm, tucked safely in my own house. And where are you? A friend’s couch, a stranger’s house, a park bench, jail, a field?
The blue tarp snags my eye as I drive by the empty field. A strange place for such a beautiful blue, I think. How did that tarp get into the middle of the field that rolls on past where I can see, the field that is mostly mud and leafy spurge? Blue is everywhere, even in desolate fields—so it cannot be avoided. Memories are blue. They seem to show up everywhere, without cause.
And even as I sketch these things out, here, at my desk in the dark, I can’t stop trying to name the blue of your eyes. I flip through names like channels: Steel, Early Morning Lake, Cadet Blue, Payne’s Gray, Rain Puddle, River Rock, Bruise. Yes, there it is, bruise. Bruise. Not the translucence of a healing bruise, but the blue of a fresh bruise. A blue, dense and deep, that imprints on the memory, so even after it’s healed, you catch its reflection everywhere you look.