For What it’s Worth

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On the way to meet her, I have time, more than I’ve ever been aware of before, and the shifts swirl around me. When we came together, when we fell away, what was between us before there was nothing. I think back six years. How I used to walk around with a little notebook in my bag, and jot down fleeting thoughts on subway cars. My fingertips, half-stained with ink, were moving with each lurch. Stop and start, stop and start. Back when we knew one another but not ourselves, I waged wars in my mind about self and sense of self, person and persona, light and dark, and my own eternal question—Was it more important to have talent or to want talent? I was figuring out who I was, what I meant to this world. Alexis was doing more or less the same.

That’s why we talked legacies. Mine, hers. For me, literary prowess or fame? For her, a husband and child? I was in love with her brother; she had just moved back into her parents’ house in Pennsylvania, and had decided to stay. It takes an editor to bind us back together—stop and start, when what happened, happened, there was the first, and then only the last.

It wasn’t like before, in the summers, when I would visit, and we’d cut thick tomato slices and fry bacon, layering the new lettuces between nutty breads and French mayonnaise. We’d put our toes in the grass, and we’d eat, me finishing her sandwich. When her parents left, we’d break out the wine, the firecrackers. We lit them, and they exploded all over the brick patio, and we screamed in delight before elbowing each other, arguing about whose fault it was because they had permanently scarred the walkway. That was a long time ago by now.

So long I can’t remember what I looked like, so long that I look at pictures from that time and can’t recall the voice of the person whose arm mine is slung around; I know it’s her but I don’t see her face that way—shiny, blonde, smiling. Khaki shorts, stupid-looking hats. We were in Nice, she had a French boyfriend, and we stood on the rocks as the bathtub-colored water rushed over us, over our feet, and we wore scarves because the wind was strong though the day was hot.

After vacation, back to our separate corners, we had a discussion about our plights. I posted an open letter online to myself and to her, a girl who, by now, always had time enough to read. My letter was about fame, about writing, two things I knew nothing about but lusted after. I asked. I pointed to the sky with an alias. If I wrote something wonderful, and nobody saw it, would it truly exist? Would it mean anything if it did not change anyone else but me? Would I be doing a service, the way I really wanted to?

“It’s the fame motive,” Alexis wrote in the comment section. “You want to be famous.”

“No,” I retorted. “I want to be good.”

“Same thing,” she wrote. I didn’t have time enough to fight. The window closed and she went offline. I deleted her comment, not because it wasn’t absolutely true, but because she had used my name, my real life name, and I was scared my boss would see what I had been doing on my lunch hour—perpetual navel gazing and social networking. I deleted her answer because it might outlive my question.

“I think that as writers, we say we want truth in return, but really we want our egos massaged,” I said explaining why I took it down, the last time I visited. We laughed in her parents’ kitchen as we dried off on a Sunday afternoon. “I feel like one of those masked magicians on cable, revealing the secrets behind the world’s greatest illusions.”

She looked at me like she was waiting for me to tear off the mask, to show my face along with my bad intentions. I was wicked. I threw a wet towel and she ducked, and it slopped to the floor.

“I know you’ll be famous, simply because of that instinct. To show us the truth.” She sounded so sure, so matter-of-fact. “You’re brilliant.”

But I am not capable of being brilliant. Only of pretending. Afterward, I shied from exposing myself more, I sent her book recommendations from afar to thumb through. I imagined her floating in the navy-bottomed pool at the edge of her parents’ vegetable patch, her small dog chasing the groundhogs terrorizing the tomato stalks.

So much had happened by the time it happened. All those clichés come from something, don’t they? We nod. Burn brightly and leave in an engulfing flame, fade out and those who know you now have forgotten who you were then. Let’s all join in, this is high school and we’ve got some angst to sell. Was that when we talked about when we talked?

Wait no, this.

Is after that.

Silly how I forgot. This is not that any more. We don’t hide on the mountain, sneaking cigarettes while the prep school police in the form of Mrs. P—old maid, adviser, science teacher, who made the same lame joke about a flux capacitor every freaking year (it’s famous in its clunky delivery) when instructing a class on electricity—looks for a flame in the dark, to nail us to the headmaster’s wall. That was a detention offense, and that was a long time ago by now.

Longer even than the pool of that house, the trading of magazines, the look in everyone’s eyes when we talked about books. Small dogs and summer cocktails, lame jokes and Christmas plans. The walk around the lake. That first day we met, as I walked with her brother, trying to win them both over. The last few e-mails that ever transpired. The scar faded faster; it can barely be seen on the bricks. That was a long time ago, by now. I’m mixed up, I spread my fingers to radiate what’s left inside me and I try, I try. Alexis was older, always older: I had nothing to teach her then, only her favor to curry, only her laugh to provoke. To win her was the ultimate prize. The things we didn’t talk about, what we knew. Alexis could teach me; I could never teach her.

I can’t remember feeling so small, but I was. I had dreams and habits that made me someone else, and I can’t recall them. It was so long ago that I say to myself now, I was a kid. And I knew nothing. Now I am not. And yet. We fell away on my watch. I look out the window. When we come together for the reunion, what will I say? Who will I have become?

No, this is not that time.

This is not the time to talk of my fame motive. That’s slipped away into another portal; how funny, how fast. The time, Alexis’s time, her wants, and now mine. I’ve caught up to Alexis in age, motives, and motivation. Now for me, this is the marrying time, this is the making-a-family time, this is the passing it on to the next generation because we forgot to do something with our own time. The What Would We Do With Our Twenties If Only We Stopped Time. I still had my twenties left, I said. Alexis’s were long gone. I spread my fingers a little more, as if that would share our cup, as if that would build a bridge, a swing, where we could meet in the middle. No, not that. Love is fickle and destructive before it’s everlasting, small talk is the only talk I know, and flowers are sent as contrition. Memories are null and void.

The last few years were spent in a basement party in another state; I stopped going to the house in summer, the fall. The rift between her brother and me was explosive, we broke up never wanting to remember what we had, and an ocean rushed between us all. He had brought us together, and now it seemed inappropriate to continue our friendship, our reading lists, our discussions, our glasses of wine. When you love two siblings, one through the other, one more than the other, you lose one and you lose them both.

I woke up one day feeling tricked. It’s not fair that I’ve been tricked, I hissed. Where was I—Vegas? No clocks on the walls, no windows? I didn’t even see it pass, didn’t remember to call. I know. I know. I could have stepped outside, I could have checked, but my eyes were fixed, flickering on the monitor, my fingertips couldn’t find a notebook, I was feeling sorry for myself because I had lost, and I had nothing to make it go away.

This is not that time, I said. I’ll say it again. Years from now. When more of us are gone. But today, it’s just you. You are gone and I remember, the time we had and now, more than ever, the time we had not enough of. The faded paper on which you exist—the only good deed that I do for you, before I delete your comment, I print it out. How I folded it up and put it away, because I didn’t think this time would come. Not really.

I will be in the backseat, because when you return home, you return to your place and position, and I will be moving away from the drive, closing my eyes, furious, running away from that moment, our first, our last, and now this. You’ve taught me, sure. Too bad I don’t want to learn.

Rest in peace, Alexis. I am sorry I took down your comment for the world to see. I am sorry for many, many things.



Photo: Anthony Rhoades

Photo: Anthony Rhoades

Hillary Kaylor’s work has appeared in Food & Wine, New York magazine, Fader, Travel + Leisure and online at Gawker and RCRD LBL. She is working on her first novel.

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In memory of Kurt Brown

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