My bedroom door is closed, unusal at this very late hour with a boy in the house. But even my generally hypervigilant, Exceedingly Involved parents have foregone the usual finger-wagging Victoriana. They seem to intuit that you are Different, and have made themselves scarce. The room is lit with candles, the stereo playing Peter Gabriel, then the Velvet Underground. You have taken off my shirt, and I yours. That's as far as it will go. I'm not ready. You... you're you, unknowable. I know you sleep with other girls behind my back (who's ready for that?), I know you disappear for weeks at a time, I know you're willing to lie to me. I know you are brilliant, complicated, troubled. I know I am besotted with you. I do not know you; you are a cipher, you could be anything.
In the morning I will stumble onto an indecently-early flight to Hartford, off to start my freshman year at Mount Holyoke. I don't yet know that at Mount Holyoke you aren't to say "freshman" because there's a "man" in it -- indeed I will meet people who use, with a dire lack of irony, words like "HERstory" and even "Womanstruation." What I know: this is the alma mater of Emily Dickinson, Katherine Glascock, Virginia Adair and Gjertrud Schnackenberg -- poets, like I'm going to be. It is small, ivied, riddled to the rafters with quaint ancient customs. It is 3000 miles from Berkeley, and from you.
I'm lying facedown on the bed, you on your side next to me and kissing my spine. You like backs, you've told me, always preferred them to "fronts." Fine: your palms -- oversized compared to the neat taper of those suprisingly delicate wrists, always covered over by long sleeves because you don't like people looking at the scars (why do it, then, I think sleepily, but the thought dissolves) -- your palms and lips on my backbone, my shoulder blades, make it hard to imagine needing more.
Half-awake, my usual nervous agitation in your presence for now banked to languor by the late hour, I think of the day I first met you, backstage at lunchtime while the sets for the play were under construction. Too thin. Strangely Puckish. Sad, too, somehow. I think of the funny thrill of finding out, on the the last day of school, that you are the boy who has been calling my house and hanging up all year. I remember that little party on your roof, and your absurd white terrycloth mental patient bathrobe and how you'd stood on the ledge with your arms out in a posture that could be flight, or crucifixion. Equally heavy-handed, dear one, but who isn't at this age, and who cares, I just wanted you to kiss me. What bliss when you did. But then, years of silence, occasional strained encounters at parties (I laugh too loudly and too long at your jokes), on the train platform where I gross you out by being barefoot (not "scintillating?"). At the junior college (you've dropped out and are now doing some GED thing; I'm forcing myself through trig and French and piano classes because who needs a summer? Between classes I'd sit in the swelter rising off the ugly concrete even in shade, and write poems -- bad ones -- about you. And you would appear as if I'd conjured you.) And how I'd finally stormed the caffe where you were working, and before you could utter a word I'd shoved a self-addressed stamped envelope into your shirt pocket and said, turning on my heel and striding off to hyperventilate in the car, "I've heard you are gifted. I expect you can figure out what to do with this."
A summer of passionate making out in my car and music and staring down the preposterously gorgeous vistas from Grizzly Peak ensue. Now, we are here, at the end of it. I don't want you to go -- ever -- but my eyes are closing in spite of themselves.
You bite your lower lip when you smile, and look up through your lashes. It should seem coy and affected. It doesn't. You have thick, black eyebrows, an adorably pointed chin, eyes to drown in, an odd shade of hazel, something like lake water. Your shoulders are sharp and angular. You wear far too much cologne. I find it oddly charming. You tell me you do not want to ever, ever have to take me ice skating and to please not ask. You ask me not to let on that you secretly love Judas Priest and Le Carre novels. You say you would like to be a seagull in your next life. I say I will be a writer in this one.
So much goes unsaid.
But ellipsis, occlusion, obfuscation, selectivity of detail -- these things are as fundamental to poetry as what does get said. Right? To me, you are not a bad boyfriend. You are a mysterious and complicated poem and if I can just figure out the trope, I will know you. Know you utterly.
There is a movie that has come out earlier in the summer, with a protagonist who so eerily resembles you (both the character and the actor who plays him) that it is almost painful to watch. He ends up the way I suspect you are going to, though none of us talk about it. I won't name the movie is because it is so apt it's plain hamfisted; no one would put it in a story, too obvious, too close to home, unthinkable, but you know the one I mean. The main characters are, high school students who fall in love with poetry, with Shakespeare and Keats and Whitman. You've had me reading, instead, Anne Sexton, Keith Waldrop, Khalil Gibran. An unlikely combination but hell, who isn't?
Tomorrow, when I arrive at Mount Holyoke after an interminable travel day and am finally undressing for bed, my new roommate will say "Hah! Who's (you)?"
"What?" Why does she know your name; why does she know about you?
"Uh, do you not realize there is a message written all over your back with a black marker?"
I will crane, heart pounding at how close I had been to showering instead of grabbing the extra fifteen minutes of sleep, and inspect my back in the closet door mirror. There will be your your arachnid, spiky handwriting, the words flipped in the glass, but I can make it out. "Amy -- Never forget I love you." Your name across my sacrum. This is the first, and one of the only, times you will ever say this to me. I don't know if it's true, I don't know if you believe it. I choose to. But leave it to you to do it in a way I am 90% certain never to see.
"I was asleep, I guess. I don't even remember saying goodbye," I'll say, a little lamely. Love? Really?
The roommate will give a knowing little smirk. She will not, in fact, know, understand, anything about this, about you.
Twelve months and two weeks from now, your life will end courtesy of a well-aimed bullet. No halfhearted cry-for-help wrist-slicing this time. No note. I will spend years wondering what you were thinking about in those last few minutes, with only the grim confidence that, to quote Anthony Hecht, "It certainly is not me."
You will haunt me forever. It's the only form of constancy I will ever know from you.
I will attempt to use poetry to exorcise you from me. It will not be very successful. I will vow many times to stop writing about you, because surely I have mined that vein to some danger of a sinkhole. The promise will never stick. You are my ghost, my intimate in a way you never could have been in life. Mine. Twenty-two years later I still watch and re-watch and re-watch episodes of the medical drama in which that actor co-stars, the one who so spookily resembled you. He is our age. Looking at him, watching him move, seeing the way his skinny angular body filled out and hearing the voice that, too, was so strangely like yours -- I can see and hear you again, imagine what you would have looked like, sounded like, if you'd grown up.
But it's when I hear that old music that I see you as you were, in the flickering light, in the sultry heat of late summer. Or rather: I don't have to see you as you were, as long as I don't push that button. That would be smart of me, wouldn't it? To close the door, just close it?