Jack cut his hair. That’s the first thing I notice when I see him sauntering across the manicured lawn of Hyde Park. He’s clean shaven too, and wearing a corduroy bomber jacket instead of his signature leather. When he notices me sitting on a bench by the water he pauses for a moment, cocking his head as if trying to remember the lyrics of a song he heard long ago. Then he smiles and walks the rest of the way. I forgot just how large he is, and yet how gently he moves, as if each step he takes is an apology for owning so much space. I stand up to greet him but then don’t know what to do. A hug? A handshake? A high-five? I finally decide on giving an awkward little wave and then crossing my arms.
“Dana from Nowhere.” He stops in front of me, still smiling. There are no fresh wounds on his face. In fact, he looks entirely docile: well slept, well fed, even possibly, hopefully, well loved.
I uncross my arms, not wanting to look guarded. “You clean up nice,” I say. I’m hyper-aware of the fact that he came all the way to London just to see me. I’m only here for four days for the seminar and wouldn’t have had time to go to Ireland, though I had daydreamed for a very long time about meeting him back at that pier. But of course it’s here, in an unanticipated place and circumstance. That’s how these things happen in real life.
He meets my gaze evenly. There’s a steadiness in his eyes that I’ve never known. “So do you.”
I glance down at my navy dress shirt and dark wash jeans. I touch my hair, also now cropped short and kept tidy like his. I don't think of myself as being much different, but I suppose we don't map our own changes the way we do other’s.
“What are you up to nowadays, Jack?” I say, internally cringing at how hard I’m trying to sound casual.
He pulls a hand-rolled cigarette from behind his ear and puts it in his mouth, then pats his pockets in search of matches. “Walk with me?”
We wander along the bank of the Serpentine, watching starlings dance in perfect choreographed formation over the water. I hand him a lighter from my pocket and he nods in thanks, cupping his hand around the cigarette as he lights it.
“I’m a landscaper,” he says, turning his head to blow the smoke away from me. “I have a flat in Ennis. Niamh stays with me every other weekend. Sometimes my mates and I get paid to play jigs in tourist bars, which I suppose makes us a band.”
“Jack! Wow. That’s all so great. I’m so happy for you.” I’m being genuine but my voice comes out stilted and monotone. I suppose it’s because I’ve been imagining this moment for over a decade: The Day We Meet Again. It conjured such mythic significance that it became both completely abstract and omnipresent. Our kaleidoscope selves sat across from each other in every café, every bar, every restaurant; they strolled every park and street and alley and pier; they said everything that could possibly be said. And now it is here and now it is us, and soon it will be gone, and I don’t know how to make it enough.
“What about you?” he asks. “What’s grand in your life?”
It occurs to me that I should have asked about his daughter. People ask about other people’s children. How old would she be now? “School, mostly,” I say, counting the years in my head. Fourteen. Niamh would be fourteen. It feels like an impossible number. “I moved to Toronto to get my PhD, but that’s not grand, really. It was just the logical next step.”
“Dana,” he says, unexpectedly serious. “That is the most grand thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Where’s Seraph?” I ask, only now realizing, belatedly, that his white wolfdog familiar isn’t padding along beside him.
“She died,” he says flatly. “Years ago. She went after a neighbour’s sheep so he shot her.”
“Oh.” I look down at my hands, which are pale and unsteady, floundering at my sides. “I’m sorry.” All this time I had imagined them together. It hadn’t occurred to me not to.
Jack just shrugs and takes another puff of his cigarette. I ask if I can have it. “You smoke now?” he says, side-eyeing me with curiosity as he passes it to me.
“Grad school will do that to you,” I say, taking a deep drag.
“So, can I call you Doctor Dana yet?”
“Not quite. Almost. And I’m not a doctor, I just have my doctorate. Almost.”
He gives me a certain look, an inside look, a look spanning years and continents. “It’s really, really good to see you,” he says, words lingering in the air like honeysuckle, like lilac. I want to breathe them in and hold them in my lungs forever.
“You too, Jack,” I manage to reply, voice catching in my throat. I cough to pretend that it’s just the smoke.
“Still sober?” he asks, catching me off guard.
“Yes. There have been a few slip-up’s, but yes, mostly.”
“Good. That’s good.”
We're quiet for a while, passing the cigarette back and forth. I spent so long adding to, subtracting from, revising, and meticulously rehearsing the list of things I would say to him the next time he stood in front of me, blood and bone and sinew and real, but those words turn to ash and blow away. They don’t matter here.
“Tell me about him,” he says.
He lifts up my left hand and brushes a calloused thumb against the ring.
“Oh.” I pull my hand away, the echo of his touch radiating hot across my skin. “His name is Joseph. He’s really great. I met him in school. Do you—uh, have someone as well?”
“I do. Laura.”
I search his expression, his tone, for something, I’m not sure what, but don’t find it. I feel untethered and lost for a moment, but then he skips ahead and turns to me, walking backwards, a boyish grin spreading across his face.
“Look at us,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“We did it.”
He spreads his hands wide, palms up, as if he’s presenting a feast. “Life.”
I laugh. “We’re working on it,” I say. “We’re giving it a good shot.”
He reaches his hand out to me again, and although I’m startled that he would do this in public for all to see and judge and know, I take it without hesitation. We thread our fingers together and hold tightly, not saying a word about it, not looking at each other. I imagine how easy it would be to not let go, to invite him to my hotel, to see what might happen if we chose to forget the world for a night. But we aren’t those people; not anymore.
“I went to Panama,” he says after a while, and my spirit jolts out of my body.
“Panama? Really?” I whisper, wavering in double vision as I try to collect myself back into one form.
“Yeah. Three years ago. I just wanted to see what it was actually like.”
“And … ?”
His eyes are wide and bright, and I can see a tiny, distorted reflection of myself in them. “Well, it would have been better with you, obviously. But it was nice. I learned how to salsa.”
The image of Jack salsa dancing is so absurd that I laugh despite myself. “Show me,” I say. He lets go of my hand and starts dancing along the sidewalk, arms raised to hold an invisible partner, feet moving nimbly, and I’m overtaken by laughter.
“Do you want to learn?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m so clumsy. I’d step on your feet.”
“Nonsense,” he says. “You’re Dancing Dana, remember?” I let him firmly grasp my hand and raise it, and I shiver when he places his other hand against my ribs. He shows me the steps and I stumble awkwardly at first, but then my body relaxes and I allow him to lead me. His smell, familiar but also new—cleaner, softer—is everywhere at once. We dance right through a flock of pigeons and the air around us is briefly obliterated by beating wings. If people are looking at us, I don’t notice. I don’t care. For the duration of the dance the world is only Jack and I, and I decide that it is, in fact, enough to have just this moment.
For me it ends in the bath at midnight in my mildewing East Vancouver apartment. For him, eight in the morning at Nimmo's pier in Galway.
“I see,” Jack says, not arguing.
I have him propped up against my roommate’s indented bottles of TRESemmé while I play with candle wax. He’s a miniature figurine in a diorama, serenely composed above the ocean. But I see how precarious his eyes are, like arctic lakes perpetually on the verge of melting. He has a new cut on his face and I don’t ask about it, for my worry has never protected him, for I no longer want to know.
“I want us to go with dignity,” I say.
“We're not dying, Dana.” His voice is gentle and resigned. Lyrics from that cursed Flaming Lips song he sent me years ago drift woozily through my head: I was waiting on a moment, but the moment never came …
“You’re sure, though?” he asks after it’s clear that I’m not going to say anything. “This time you’re sure?”
“Yes, Jack.” I’m not certain about anything, actually, but sometimes you have to make a choice regardless. Deep down I know, and have known for a long time, that even if our situations were different, if we lived closer to each other, if there wasn’t the issue of Niamh and Rachel, Jack still wouldn’t choose to spend his life with a man. I have only ever been a dream to him. And besides, he has never been able to let me in all the way. There are still so many things I don’t know about him, things he refuses to talk about. And all we can do is talk.
“You know what I’m going to miss the most?”
“What.” I watch my thin, lanky body warp under the water, wishing I had a bottle of Apothic Red right now. I wonder if he’s looking at my body too, and if he is, what he’s thinking about it.
“Panama was never going to be real,” I say, not allowing a pause. Demolished worlds will attempt to reconstruct themselves in silences.
“I’ll still miss it." He’s trying to roll a cigarette but a gust of wind blows away the tobacco. He calmly starts again.
In Panama's mountains there is an imaginary cabin, and in that cabin Jack and I are together. Once it was so real I could reach through a window and pick a pink bougainvillea flower. I could pad barefoot along cracked tile and see him sprawled in a hammock with his pan flute. He and I were gods, our language of creation Facebook, and blocking him means drone bombing our eden. It was only ever words, but destroying them is still violence.
I dribble more wax, savouring its sting. I need something mildly self destructive to do in place of drinking. I stick my finger in my mouth and the wax, already hardened, flakes onto my tongue. I spit it into the bath, watching the crimson shards sink rather than look at him when I have to say these words: “Don't contact me. If I contact you, don’t respond. Promise?”
“Promise,” he says, voice hollow and metallic.
We’re two surgeons casually discussing the fact that we just murdered our patient. For minutes we’re quiet, testing the moment's elasticity. Once, our silences held infinite possibility. Sometimes we'd call and say nothing for an hour; I’d study the DSM-5 while he read books like The Baghavad Gita and The Book of Five Rings. Sometimes one or both of us would fall asleep, and our call would last hours and hours. I adored him more even while he was invisible and mute than I had any flesh and blood lover. And now, this silence is nothing at all. It’s just empty space. And I realize, in that space, that I don’t think I ever actually told Jack I love him. I never said those exact words. I said many other words that basically meant the same thing, but never love itself. It was too volatile. And now it’s too late.
“Hey, Jack?” I say, looking up. I wonder if this is how he will remember me, wet and pink and singed.
“Hm?” He’s trying without luck to light a match. He strikes and strikes, his hand cupped around the place the fire won’t come.
“I don’t regret any of it.”
He rips the cigarette out of his mouth and throws it into the ocean. “We had a grand six years, Dana,” he says, not looking at me. “Good craic.”
The videos. The calls. The messages tallying tens of thousands. What I will miss most is his voice, low and musical and otherworldly. But I know I will always have him in my head, conjuring the reason and magic I have a habit of misplacing.
“I’m sorry we couldn't run away,” he says after another vacant pause, turning over and over his empty hands.
“We did though, in a way. We had our time.”
He looks at me then, holding my gaze across six years and seven thousand kilometers, and smiles. Despite the complex topographic history of his face it is a gentle smile, even shy.
I love you. I take a deep breath. “Can we both promise to remember that someone out there knows us completely? Or at least, tried to know us completely? Can we remember that we deserve to be known?”
“Deal,” he says, then spits into his hand and holds it towards me. His saliva drips off his palm in one big foamy dewdrop.
“That’s disgusting,” I say, laughing, then do the same.
I mail him a handwritten letter. When he gets it, he calls.
“Oh, Dana,” he says in a hushed, strained voice.
“Oh, Jack.” I match his tone, dizzy, brittle, waiting.
“What to do.”
“I’ll get on a plane tomorrow if you just say the word.” I’m lying diagonally across my bed in the dark, feeling the contours of my face with my free hand. My bones are suddenly strange and foreign. I open my mouth and run a fingertip along my two crooked lower teeth, the teeth that in anxiety dreams come loose and then fall out of my mouth like tic-tacs.
“Dana, Dana. What to do.”
“I don’t need Panama. Fuck Panama. I just need you.”
He’s quiet. Then: “You have university. A good job. A man.”
“Fuck all that.”
“You don’t mean that. Remember what you said right at the beginning? About knowing who you need to be?”
“I don’t know what I was talking about. I had some idea in my head about being somebody.”
“You are somebody. Don’t you dare give that up on my account.”
“What if I finish school first?”
This pause weighs heavy across continents. “There’s Niamh.”
“I know there’s Niamh.” I wonder if fingers really are as easy to bite off as baby carrots, and I put my finger back in my mouth to test it. But of course I’m too chicken to really give it a good try.
“Rachel wouldn’t allow it. She would deny me visitation. She doesn’t like … people like you. Us, I mean. I’ve told you that.”
People like me. The us an addendum. “You’re going to let her dictate your life?” I murmur, my voice distant and deflated.
Jack sighs loudly into my ear. “You’re asking me to choose between you and my daughter.”
“No I’m not. I would never ask that.”
He says nothing. I say nothing. I push my thumb into my eye socket until a sphere of orange light blooms under the pressure.
“You don’t know how many times I’ve come so close to saying fuck it all. But it just isn’t the right thing to do.”
“I get it.” My voice sounds more bitter than I intended. “I’m the wrong choice.”
“No, Dana—” he begins, but I hang up.
For my twenty-second birthday, I invite Jack to have a video chat picnic with me. I insisted we plan in advance to buy the same groceries. It turns out that he’s a bizarrely picky eater; all this time and I never knew.
“How can you not like cheese?” I had exclaimed, too loud, in the grocery store. An old woman who was leaning down to grab a carton of milk jumped and then gave me a nasty look. “What on earth is wrong with you?” I said quieter, smiling apologetically at the woman. “Everybody likes cheese.”
“I mean, I’ll eat it,” he said, “but I’d rather not. Anything fermented creeps me out.”
“I’m seriously re-evaluating this relationship,” I replied, then inhaled sharply as if I could suck the forbidden word back into me. “Can you handle bread at least?” I said in a rush. “Is sourdough definitely off the table?"
He laughed, a rich and deep and delicious sound. “I can handle bread. You pick any kind you want.”
Jack wiggles his fingers when the video connects, smiling his crooked smile, head bowed, always a little camera shy. I’m sitting on an Afghan blanket under a maple tree in the park by my house, and he’s on his leather jacket at river Corrib. I wish he had gone somewhere else, anywhere else, but I don’t dare comment on his choice of location. Seraph lopes around in the background, a shaggy white blur, chasing this or that or just running for the joy of it.
“Dana,” he says softly, reaching towards me. “Your hair is in your eyes. I want to see you.”
I brush my hair away and smile. It sweetly aches to look at him. His wild, knotted hair, unsteady eyes, crooked nose, and the jagged scar that turns up the corner of his lip all remind me that I will never find him in another.
“Tell me something grand,” he says, pulling out a bowie knife and carving into a green apple. Before him I never thought of any part of my life as being grand, but when I look at myself the way he looks at me, the ordinary becomes infused with subtle magic.
“Well, last week when I was supposed to be studying in this park, I started dancing instead. I have no idea why; I just heard music in my head. People looked at me like I was crazy. Hey, don’t eat that yet.” I pull out my apple, also green, already cut into neat sections, drizzled with lemon juice, and stored in a glass container.
“Dancing Dana is still here after all,” he says, grinning. He wipes his knife on his jeans, raises a chunk of apple to his mouth, and waits for me to do the same.
“How’s the internship going?” he asks when we’ve finished our tandem bite.
“Great, actually.” I tell him all about the study on flashbulb memories I’m helping to design.
“I’m so proud of you,” he replies when I’ve finally stopped rambling, and the words glow in my chest like fireflies. “I wouldn’t last a day with all those psychoanalyzing whitecoats.”
We eat in silence for a while, finishing our apples and then starting on pita bread and hummus. “Hey, Jack?” I say after some time.
“Why don’t you like fermented food? That’s such a strange aversion.”
He scratches the side of his head, glancing at Seraph as she darts in and out of the frame. “Do you actually want to know?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m asking.”
“Well, Dana, the truth is that growing up, half the food I was fed, when I was fed at all, had already gone bad.”
I look down at the limp triangle of bread in my hands. “Oh.” I ache so badly in this moment to stroke my fingers against the back of his hand, to lean my head on his shoulder, to comfort him in a place beyond words. But all I have are words, and they’re never enough.
“Well, anyway,” he says, and I look up to see him rolling a cigarette with intense concentration.
“I want to know everything about you. Give it all to me. I can handle it.”
His eyebrows push together as he licks the rolling paper. “I highly doubt that.”
“Oh, don’t give me that,” I say, surprised at how irritated I sound. “You always tell me there’s no part of me that I need to hide. You’re no different. I’m not the best at finding the right words so you have to be patient, but I’m here, okay? If you were going to scare me off, you would have done it already.”
Jack blinks, taken aback by my intensity. “Okay, Dana. Okay.”
“I’ve told you all kinds of shit,” I continue. “I told you about my Dad. About getting kicked out of the house and the drugs and alcohol and all that. I can handle knowing about your crappy childhood and whatever keeps happening to your face and why you went to jail. You always think I’m going to be so horrified and aghast. But have I ever made you feel like you’re too much?”
Jack lights a match and holds it to the cigarette in his mouth, cupping the flame with his hand. “No. You haven’t.”
“Case in point. I hate to break it to you, but you really aren’t the big scary monster you think you are.”
His eyes flick up and he grins deviously, then growls like a wild beast. My skin prickles, but not because I’m afraid.
Jack and I haven’t spoken since I blocked him on Facebook five months earlier. First it was because I thought that the break of our fused bones would be cleanest if aligned with my return to Vancouver, a fresh start and all that. And then I started dating this sweet, soft guy named Brennan and I was so intent on making it work, on not allowing one perfect memory from two years ago to destroy any chance at feeling fulfilled and fulfilling someone else. I would settle for good enough. Good enough was better than the concave, helpless hunger of loving someone like Jack. But the plan didn’t work. Brennan would delicately cradle my face in his smooth hands, peer at me with amber eyes brimming with concern, and whisper Dana, Dana, where are you? and of course I couldn’t tell him I’m in Galway, or I’m in Panama, so I said nothing at all. Eventually he left, terribly apologetic, saying he couldn’t love a ghost. Still I didn’t speak to Jack. I thought that with enough willpower I could grow new tissue to fill the space he had opened in me that night on the bank of the river.
But tonight I’m trying hard not to think about any of this. I just got accepted back into my university program after dropping out for a year, so friends come over to my miniature studio apartment with non-alcoholic knockoff champagne to celebrate. I down glass after glass of the sickly sweet drink, laughing and gossiping with my friends. When someone I once hooked up with leans down to kiss me I smoothly duck away and pat him on the head, and the rest burst into giggles. I’m not known as the guy who turns people down.
I swivel around on my lone stool and catch sight of my reflection in the only window. My hair is a mess, falling out of its low ponytail, and my face is nearly as flushed as it would be if I were drinking real alcohol. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, or at least the most stable. But there’s something about this life that feels generic and featureless. I spent too long making an identity out of failure that I can’t help but feel homesick for it sometimes. I look away from myself, determined to lay claim to my happiness, to make it mine, to make it me. A friend stands behind me and unties my hair, gently untangles it with her fingers, and begins to French braid it. I close my eyes and float in the sensation of the soft, rhythmic pulling, trying to convince myself that I don’t need anything more than this city, this degree, these people. I can build the foundations of a good life here.
But long after everyone has gone home I lie awake in the dark, acutely aware of the empty space beside me that a lover isn’t occupying. Insomnia and loneliness beckon me to the forbidden territory, and before I’ve had time to reason with myself I open Facebook and unblock him. It’s that simple, that quick.
“You’re my curse,” I say the next day, lips pressed against the phone as if Jack might not hear me right.
“Then why are you calling?”
“I guess because I like being cursed.”
“I don’t know what you want from me, Dana.”
I’m stalking through the cherry blossom infested streets of my neighbourhood. It’s five pm here, meaning it’s one in the morning in Ireland. I know I’m keeping him up, but I don’t care. “Just get me out of my head,” I say. “Tell me something grand.”
“Grand? Let me think.” His voice is soft and blurred around the edges. I imagine his bulky body folded in the too-small bed in his boat that I’ve only seen in pictures and videos, a cramped and lovely little place swathed in gauzy maroon fabric with sparkly jingling things dangling from the low ceiling. How many times have I imagined the smell of his sheets? Imagined my fingers trailing along the rough wood of his handmade bookshelves while he trailed his fingers along me? One night, while curled up in the crook of his arm (but really alone in the dark, astral projecting), I asked why he lives on a boat, and he said it was because he couldn’t sleep unless he was being cupped in the palm of the ocean, rocked as if by a mother. Later he admitted that the real reason is that he hadn’t been able to reliably hold down a job or keep a house since getting out of jail, and a while back he won this boat gambling. I never knew he’d been in jail, and I didn’t ask why or when or for how long. I didn’t know he gambled either. He would tell me if he wanted me to know, I thought. But he never did.
“The grandest thing I can think of telling you is that hearing your voice is the best thing that’s happened to me in a while.”
I stop and stare up into one of the blooming trees. The city is smothered in pink flurries, and soon the sickly sweet smell of rotting flowers will hover thick in the air. I blink several times, focusing my attention on one single bud that’s still closed as if, with enough concentration, it might unfurl just for me.
I’m storming around the first apartment I ever had in the city, haphazardly shoving my stuff into boxes.
“You’re being dramatic,” Luke says, leaning against the doorway. He’s shirtless and his hair is wet, and I hate how effortlessly handsome he is when I feel like a mess.
I whirl towards him with a muddy Converse in one hand. “See? That’s exactly it. You’re so goddamn patronizing.”
“You’re drunk. You’ll calm down when you sober up.”
I throw the shoe at him and he catches it smoothly and drops it on the floor. “I’m leaving you!” I shout. “I’m going home. Don’t you get that? Has it registered yet? Do you need me to repeat myself?”
“You don’t mean it,” he says, turning away and wandering down the hallway. “But this time, you’re SOL. You exhaust me, Dana. You’re an incredibly draining person to be around.”
And he’s right about me not meaning it. Right about it all, really. I cry and pass out, and when I wake up I beg him to forget what I said, but he won’t even look in my direction. So I leave.
On the ferry I call Jack, because of course I call Jack. “I’m going back to my hometown,” I confess. “Whatever you do, don’t say you’re disappointed.”
“Why would I say that? You’re the opposite of a disappointment. You’re lovely.”
I’m leaning over the railing on the deck, partly because I have a killer hangover and am worried I might vomit, and partly because looking straight into death sometimes helps me find perspective. My hair whips wildly around my face as I study the churning water far below with intense concentration. “I just can’t do it,” I mutter.
“That’s great. You know you need a break, so you’re giving yourself a break.”
“I’m an absolute and total failure.”
“Don’t be daft, Dana. Hey, there’s a good nickname for you. Daft Dana.”
“You’re making fun of me right now?”
“You just need to sleep and breathe and slow down for a while, then you’ll dust yourself off and go back to where you’re supposed to be. And for God’s sake, stop drinking.”
“I was masquerading as someone I’m not. The jig’s up. The lights came on. They realized I’m a fraud.”
“Your head’s swarming with lies right now. Don’t believe yourself.”
“Your head’s swarming with lies. You actually think I’m that person.”
“You are that person, and he’s going to be fine. I promise. Just break down for a bit, really get into the chaos of it, let all that bullshit stomp around and make its big fuss. Eventually the storm will get bored of itself and then you can start putting yourself back together again. You’re just figuring out the best way to construct a Dana.”
I step back from the ocean and slump onto the deck, leaning against a wall. “My latest ex-boyfriend thinks I’m dramatic. Actually, that’s a pretty common assessment.”
Jack laughs. “He’s right. You put on such a good show that you fool even yourself.”
I start to bristle, ready to hang up, but then I soften. I curl my knees to my chest and lean my forehead on them, sighing. “You’re the only one who can talk sense into me,” I say.
“Cariño, un día nos elevaremos por encima de todo.”
Something twangs violently inside me, a guitar string stretched too close to breaking.
“What does that mean?”
“Darling, one day we will soar above it all.”
“You’ve been learning Spanish?”
“Just in case.”
“I would like to watch you sleeping, which may not happen. I would like to watch you, sleeping.” I’m curled up in the little alcove under the stairs of the psychology department, the only place on campus where I can be alone, with Selected Poems II: 1976-1986 by Margaret Atwood propped up on my knees. I speak softly so that the endless stream of students thundering up and down the stairs above can’t hear me.
“I would like to sleep with you, to enter your sleep as its smooth dark wave slides over my head, and walk with you through that lucent wavering forest of bluegreen leaves with its watery sun and three moons, towards the cave where you must descend, towards your worst fear. I would like to give you the silver branch, the small white flower, the one word that will protect you from the grief at the center of your dream, from the grief at the center.”
I pause there, but Jack says nothing. He only exhales, long and slow, like someone breathing through pain.
“I would like to follow you up the long stairway again and become the boat that would row you back carefully, a flame in two cupped hands, to where your body lies beside me, and you enter it as easily as breathing in. I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary.” I close the book and lean forward, hand over my mouth, eyes squeezed shut, waiting.
“I don’t know what to say,” he murmurs.
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“I want to say something.”
“I’m not expecting you to.”
He sighs. His bed creaks, and then he begins playing his flute. It’s eerie and beautiful, a spell, a dream, a memory, a question and an answer, and it says more than any words could. When the song is over we’re both quiet for several moments, then we try to speak at the same time.
“What?” I ask.
“No, you go.”
“I was just going to say that as I listened to your music I was lying on a pier watching the stars, and I think that really I’ve never left that place. I have never felt as alive before or since. What were you going to say?”
“Well. More or less the same thing.”
I’ve just turned eighteen, and I think: Ireland. That’s far from here. I dreamt of escaping my hometown for most of my life and I needed a dramatic exit. That place was trying to spit me out like a bad tooth anyway. I’ve been accepted into a good university in Vancouver, but I needed to first experience a taste of life far away from anything I’ve known. On my last night in Galway I meet a rebel poet who lives in a ramshackle squatter house, and she takes me to some park to meet her circus friends who spin fire poi. I loll under a bloated moon, entranced by the scything light, until the whiskey comes out. Newly sober, I know it’s time to leave.
I quickly get lost, but I rejoice in it. It’s never happened to me before. I know every street, every stop sign, every crosswalk in my hometown. If I was ever kidnapped, I could map my location by the timing and turns. I’ve never been alone like this either, and rarely sober since fourteen. I skip along the road, buoyant and untethered and not myself, or perhaps myself for the first time.
Then I hear the sound of a flute. Its haunting echo refracts off the ancient buildings, and I follow it to the ocean. A long pier juts out into the bay, and at the end of the pier is a raised platform, and on that platform is a cross-legged man with a pan flute. I lie down some ways from him, not wanting to interrupt, and watch the sound rise up, like smoke, to kiss the satiated moon. Perhaps I could stay in Galway forever, I think. Vancouver feels distant and abstract and meaningless now. I could become a squatter house poet and meet this strange man here every night to be reminded of what a dream sounds like. Then suddenly it is quiet.
“Come here,” he says.
As if pulled by an invisible thread, I stand up and float to him. I notice his hair first, knotted like briar, then his wild pale eyes, then the opalescent scar trailing down the left side of his face like a caress.
“I’m Jack,” he says. His voice is rough but musical and I love it, I love it.
“Where have you come from, Dana?”
“Nowhere,” I say.
He nods. “I thought I saw you materialize out of thin air.”
“And you’ve been here forever, right?”
“I have. They had to build this pier around me.”
I smile, mapping the terrain of his lovely broken face. “This doesn’t happen.”
“Maybe not for you, but my life is one mad dream after another. I’m afraid I might have made you up.”
“I don’t mind being your invention,” I say, and I mean it.
He studies me like a new language, then flashes a crooked smile. “Will you walk with me for a while, Dana from Nowhere?”
Jack is mythically large, yet walks with tender lightness like he hasn’t quite committed to the ground. He begins playing his flute again and I dance ahead. I never danced at home; it was too dangerous to move my body like this in a place like that. Too feminine. Too queer. But right now, I don’t care if this stranger sees me as I am. I want him to. I need him to. This is how we make our way through the hushed labyrinthine streets of this immortal city, and it is a dream more real than life.
Eventually I stop and turn to him. He lowers the flute, looking at me in a way that makes me think of those Bright Eyes lyrics: This is the first day of my life, swear I was born right in the doorway … I know I’m being ridiculously sentimental and sincere in the way only a newly uncloseted eighteen-year-old can be, but I don’t care. Wordlessly, we walk together to the bank of the river. He lays his leather jacket on the damp grass and we sit side by side, not touching but very, very close, and watch the silver moonlight shimmering across the water.
“Tell me something grand,” he says.
“Grand? I don’t know anything grand.”
“Nonsense. You’re clearly made of magic.”
I scrunch my nose, thinking. “Well, I’m here. I didn’t expect to ever be here, now. I was going to end up a statistic, but I didn’t. And for the first time, the world feels so … bright, and open, and delicious.”
“That’s beautiful,” he says. And then, after a pause: “Run away with me, Dana from Nowhere.”
I jerk back, scooting onto the dewy grass, searching his atmospheric eyes. “What?”
“Why not? We could go anywhere. You dance ahead and I’ll follow.”
He shrugs, and I start to laugh. I don’t know why I find this so funny. I laugh and laugh and then abruptly stop when he gently, delicately, nervously puts his hand over mine. “You haven’t said no yet,” he murmurs.
“Where would we go?” For a brief moment he and I exist everywhere at once. The possibilities form an infinite kaleidoscopic spiral.
“I always liked the idea of living in a jungle,” he says. “In a little cabin far away from everyone. We could live off of coconuts and yuca, do a boatload of acid, and write senseless books like Leonard Cohen did on Hydra.”
“That sounds really, really nice,” I say.
For a while we are cartographers. I trail my fingers down his spine; he traces my collarbones with his nose and nibbles on my fingers. When our lips finally dare to touch, I feel like I’m being lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Past me would have said yes in a heartbeat,” I say after some time, and our kaleidoscope selves are sucked back into this moment, into these bodies. “But I’m about to start school in a new city. I know who I need to be, and it isn’t someone who dances off into a jungle with a stranger.”
He nods, scanning the water with an inscrutable expression. “Of course that’s the right choice.”
“What if we have just tonight, Jack? What if we create an absolutely perfect memory that nothing can touch or tarnish?”
He brushes my hair away from my neck with calloused fingers. “Deal,” he whispers to my skittering pulse.
It would have ended at six in the morning outside my hostel if I hadn’t, at the last moment, asked him to add me on Facebook. I just wasn’t ready to let him go quite yet.
Cayenne Bradley lives on the traditional, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations in Vancouver, BC. Their work appears in Room, Contemporary Verse 2, Plenitude, Existere, and elsewhere. They study Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.