They say you can tell a lot about a man by looking at his shoes. It's a silly metaphor but one that's always stuck with me. When I meet someone, I look at their shoes. It's my way of sizing them up. And sometimes I wonder if they do the same to me.
The thing is, the metaphor works so well. As a child you're constantly growing new shoes. You're probably wearing shoes your parents picked for you or some hand-me-downs. When growth slows down you start making your own choices. Boots through most of high school, then black Converse junior year. My sister drew stars on one of them. When they got old I wrapped duct tape around them. It was an ultimate, deliberate expression of how little I cared--something I wanted to make sure everyone knew.
Then there was the grey pair I had for a while. They were unadorned until I let my girlfriend draw all over one of them, and someone dropped a red marker on the other--after which point they bore her mark forever, until they were far too tattered to be worn. Even then I kept them around sometimes, for those days I didn't have time to put on another pair, the days when I was at my worst, the days when I was least prepared.
I've had both pairs I wear now for a long time now. Both of them are getting noticeably beat up. The green and black pair is stained; the black pair is turning brownish. Both are falling apart on the inside, little pieces I didn't even know were there falling apart of ripping. But for all appearances they're fine. They don't draw attention to themselves, but they aren't beautiful. They get by. They may be unravelling but there's still a few miles left in them.
They say you can tell a lot about a man by looking at his shoes. It's a silly metaphor but one that's always stuck with me. When I meet someone, I look at their shoes. It's my way of sizing them up. And sometimes I wonder if they do the same to me.
I'm shivering with fever as I write this. There's so much I could be writing about. Do they still move the hands on the doomsday clock? I could be writing about that right now if they do. I could be writing about all of the stupid ways humanity is destroying itself.
But all I can focus on is today. On what I was hoping would just be a quick Memorial Day phone call, wrapped up in blankets despite the warm weather, drinking a cup of tea. And she answered, noise in the background--having more fun than I was, obviously. "Hello?" and "I can't hear you, hang on," and "Hello? Are you still there?" before it was finally "There you are! How are you?" and "I'm great," and "I can't talk long," and "Can I call you back after the party?"
And I'm saying "Sure," and "I'll be here," and "It's not like I'm going anywhere." And there's no phone call and I'm just reading through all the news and wondering if maybe I should be afraid or upset or concerned or angry or sad--but nothing. Threats of UN resolutions, talk of hostilities and war breaking out and immediate action, and I'm waiting for a fucking phone call. It's four am. She's not calling. She's asleep or passed out or staying up until dawn talking to her friends, sobering up as the dawn approaches, sharing that deliriously exhausted sunrise with someone that isn't me. And I'm shivering and wrapped in blankets and drinking tea and staring at the screen, because I am just a man, and I'm not above all the stupid ways humanity is destroying itself.
She washes her hands in scalding water sometimes, and sometimes she doesn't really know why. Usually it's for stress, but sometimes, when she's washing her hand and the water gets hot, she'll just stare at her hands and leave them under the water until she can't bear it anymore. Sometimes she massages her hands; sometimes it's just enough to leave them still.
There is something intensely focusing about the process, something that makes the simple ritual of hand-washing into a calming and pleasurable experience--and she has never told anyone about it, though she has put it into writing once or twice. Like so many secrets, it is not that she is afraid someone will find out, but that she thinks no one would care, and it has never really come up in conversation. Over time she has decded that she should keep it secret inentionally, if for no other reason than sometimes, it's important to be able to say to someone, "I have never told anyone this before," and mean it.
It was a lazy afternoon last summer when I first unearthed her notebook, which was beautiful, if a little dusty and beat up. Somehow I could tell it was an artifact. I set it on the coffee table and dusted off the cover gently. "What's this?" I asked, trying to be casual.
"Oh, that. It's nothing."
"Can I read it?"
"I'd rather you not, it's--it's kind of personal."
I left it at that. She put it back away, locking up those little secrets she'd written on its pages, expecting me to pretend they weren't there. And I didn't press the issue, but the day stayed with me. That look of mixed fear and embarrassment in her eyes as she saw it. Whatever it was, I couldn't be trusted with it.
Today, as I was lying in bed doing nothing but enjoy the weather, I was interrupted by the doorbell. The UPS driver was leaving as I opened the door. He'd left a small package on my doorstep, with no return address. I cut it open on my way upstairs--she'd sent me the notebook. I don't know why she wanted to share her secrets with me now that we barely speak anymore, and there was no explanation attached. A phone call confirmed she'd sent it but she wouldn't comment, except to request that I read it.
Sometimes it's good to know that someone knows everything.
Almost five am and there's a window open in my bedroom. There's a cool breeze and the sounds of the city and the trees and the birds makes it perfect, and here I am lying on my back, staring at the lights and the shadows playing across the ceiling, wishing this moment--this perfect evening in late spring, the breeze--would last forever. Smiling, letting my mind wander, thinking about everything and nothing.
Six months since I saw her last. That puts it around late autumn when the leaves were turning, and she was wearing a scarf and a hat and a jacket, and we were meeting up in Wallingford, where the trees were so beautiful, and rustled not unlike tonight, but it wasn't spring then. It was cooler, then. We walked hand in hand, and she never even told me she was leaving. But she looked like autumn looks, not cold, but about to leave, and the winds are getting sharper and the days get shorter and shorter. And while she was wearing that little knit cap and that pretty scarf, there was that distance there, even if she's beautiful wearing it. I can't run my hands through her hair, or kiss her on the neck and leave a mark, like she tells me she wants me to.
But it's been six months now and I've stopped wishing she were here. She's an autumn girl, now, in her scarf and hat and jacket and that distant smile, with those cryptic words about the seasons changing and the leaves falling. And it's spring, and everyone is so beautiful in spring, and I'm still drunk on the flowers and the trees even as they fade into their summer greens. It's spring and she's an autumn girl and right now, I'm just happy with the late spring melody of the city. I've reserved the spring for myself.
My eyes drift shut, and tonight I don't hear the wind whispering her name.
There is a quiet girl who worries sometimes that she missed something with her first real love, that maybe when she got scared and ran away it was because she had never actually felt anything like that before. So she dates nice boys, boys who will believe her when she whispers promises to them in bed, boys who kiss her on her neck and leave little bruises, who only want to love and be loved and just know that she is the one, right up until she leaves.
She is dating a boy with a mind who likes to pick at things, who asks why all the time, who wants to know what happens when you break rules. He is a painter and thinks that all of life is a question, except, he confided recently in his girlfriend, for her. He doesn't believe her when she is quiet for a long moment and tells him that if she's an answer, it's not to the question he's asking. He kisses her on the neck and it will leave a little bruise and tells her she shouldn't be afraid, that he will never leave her, and she wishes he would understand that she is telling him she's going to leave him in a few weeks, now, before he can hurt too bad.
His brother just graduated high school and never listens when his parents and teachers tell him he has a brilliant mind. He wants to study music, and he also never listens when his parents and teachers tell him he'd be wasting his talents there. He listens to his girlfriend, who is his first and with whom he is sure he is in love, who tells him to do what he likes.
His girlfriend is seventeen and hates it when people don't understand one another. She thinks that it's the most important thing in the world and is going to be a social worker when she grows up, because she thinks everyone should get to do what they like instead of what they are expected to do. She doesn't think she is in love with her boyfriend, but she is staying with him while he goes off to college, in the hopes that he will decide the distance is too much of a strain. On some nights she entertains notions of infidelity, but mostly the thoughts are anathema.
Her sister is a poet, and thinks there is nothing more beautiful than poetry in any of the three languages she speaks. She has always loved words, their nuances, learning their meanings more intuitively than any dictionary could. And despite the sometimes mournful and wistful sentiments she expresses she insists that she is happier than any human being has a right to be, and she says it with such eloquence and conviction, no one has ever thought to question her.
We were walking along through the park at night--it was a lovely out and we'd been friends long enough that it seemed like it'd be nice. She was talking about a mutual friend of ours and something they'd done this weekend while I was in Portland. Then she stopped and we fell silent and by some sort of mutual agreement slowed to a halt in the middle of the path.
Then there was a moment--that brief tension and uncertainty. Our eyes met for a moment before she, smiling suddenly, pushed me into the grass and laughed. I lay there for a moment before she helped me back up. We didn't say anything for the rest of the walk, just smiled secretly and held hands. It was a moment of perfect clarity. No games, no power politics, no lying, no questions, no dancing around anything. We both understood. It was perfectly straightforward and perfectly honest.
We could have ruined it with words, of course. But words, especially in the hands of a writer, are a terrible way to start something off.
It was still almost daylight when we got in, settling down on her couch to watch the sun sink behind the trees with a bottle of red wine, trying to push down the feeling that this, too, is fleeting. All the day's laughter and festivities seemed fleeting now, and there was just us: her, me, the wine, the sunset. And it wasn't long before the sun had set and it was just dark now, and the streetlights and the leaves cast dancing shadows on the wall, and our moods had darkened too. By the time the light fled we were talking about our regrets and what we'd have done different, about today, about everything.
About the time I was talking about how I was afraid I had one shot and I blew it, her hand found mine, or maybe mine found hers, and then her head found my shoulder and my lips found her lips and we both found the floor. We kicked over the last of her wine and froze there, her on top of me, me ready to apologize, when she started laughing. "It's fine," she said. "Really."
"Shouldn't we get some paper towels or--"
"Let's just shut up. Just for tonight."
It would, she observed, still be there in the morning.
It wasn't official or anything but I ran into a couple of people from my old high school recently, and we had something like a reunion. It's the sort of thing I hope to avoid in the future. It's not so much that I feel older--I've known that for a while now. But everyone I knew in high school, I knew as a dream.
The girl I dated for most of high school used to be filled with this boundless enthusiasm, not sure what she wanted to do, but everyone just knew she was the kind of person who would go places. When I ran into her she seemed subdued, tired, and still not sure where she really wanted to go. Late at night, when the others had gone home, she confided that she still felt like she only made choices because she was never given the option not to.
One of my best friends was always laughing, but he also always had that calm that only comes with self-awareness. He knew who he was and where he was going--and, to his credit, never once faltered from his goal. Now he's there. He has other goals, more projects. He's moved on, and it became readily apparent his bright future didn't include his past.
Melissa worked hard and played hard. She was always a little guarded, not willing to let anyone in, and always seemed like she was trying to prove something. She was well on her way to a brilliant career now, and by rights she should have been happy with that. But if she's trying to prove something, she doesn't quite seem convinced herself.
I don't quite know what I expected. I knew they'd change. I didn't know what the future looked like, though--it was some unattainable ideal back then, a time when we would be happy, successful, and all the questions were answered. And then, somehow, we got there. It wasn't a beautiful ideal. It wasn't wonderful. We got there and it was just as confusing and bleak--older now, more experienced, but we aren't any happier or better off for it, just bereft of our optimism and idealism.
It was a fine day for a funeral. Just the sort of spring day where the colors are still vibrant, but with an overcast sky and a sort of thin mist falling, washing out everything but those vibrant colors. And here was everyone in their somber blacks and umbrellas. Some of them were crying. Even the occasional smile was that grim smile--the kind you can only really do when you're finding humor in the worst of situations. In most respects it was perfect. They couldn't have asked for a better day for a funeral.
I never really knew him when he was alive. I was good friends with his younger brother in college--we'd lived together for a few years--but I'd moved on. I was in Chicago now, working in finance. I was engaged to be married in the summer. As far as I was concerned, life is beautiful and there's so much going on. But he insisted, and I was never one to turn down a friend, so I flew back.
I'm not sure why I came here. After all the awkward embraces and weak, consoling smiles, avoiding glances, it's only made me uncomfortable. My friend barely talked to me, which was probably understandable--but the whole affair was, despite its picturesque qualities, starting to agitate me. When I felt I'd made a sufficient appearance, I began walking back towards my car.
My friend stopped me before I could leave. "Hey, glad you came."
"Yeah. You all right?"
"I'll be all right." We talked for a while. I was surprised at how little I was interested in his life, while he seemed fascinated in mine. I was happy, successful, and he--well, wasn't.
"God, you've changed a lot since college, haven't you?"
I said I supposed I had. I never would have looked forward to starting a family, to moving out to the suburbs, then. I didn't comment on how little he'd changed. He still had that quiet unconcerned confidence, like he didn't care if his suit was ill-fitting, that he didn't have a future--like he knew and wasn't worried about it, because it would all work out in the end. Like somehow he'd managed to avoid all of the worry and stress and was still confident in himself at his brother's funeral, holding together and optimistic about the future despite everything.
"I guess I'll let you go. Thanks for coming out, it's good to see you."
"Yeah, you, too," I lied. "Sorry I can't stay longer." I drove back to my hotel and lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, completely motionless until I finally passed out that evening.
Sometimes all you know about someone is they're perfect, and here's me with my scars and my past and I know it all, all the time. Forever. And sometimes I forget that I'm not the only one who can tell you every single story about them. How I got this scar when I was seven and playing with my sister. How I was always the one getting the scars from our stupid games. Sometimes I forget that sometimes the reason we're ashamed to be naked isn't because of our bodies but our scars.
She's asleep next to me in bed as I write this. I never noticed all of the little scars she has before--the ones on her back and arms and legs. The thing is I knew, on some level, that she had a past, she had a long life before we met. I know the stories everyone knows, the little failings she doesn't mind sharing with the world--the ones that are funny and don't make us look bad, but make us look human. The ones that make everyone else forget about the worse things we've done.
So we smile. The ones that don't fade, we cover up. You never ask. You pretend that all of the things you know are actually true. We pretend we're a happy couple that's perfect for each other, and honest and tells each other everything. But how can we be honest if there's so much we'll probably never say?
My mother wasn't there much, emotionally, when I was a kid. Sure, she gave me food and shelter and basic needs, and even a fair amount of the things I wanted, the little luxuries and frivolous necessities. But she was distant, reserved, since father died. I hated her for it. She'd help me out if I was injured physically but if I needed someone to talk to she just wasn't available. Even if I tried she'd just sit there, frozen, like she was afraid to answer but couldn't run away--not from her son.
I watched my friends carefully. They were close to their parents. Even when they fought, it was the fighting that happens when you're close to someone--only angry because there's love there, and you've bruised the relationship. Not my mother. It was so cold and emotionless. It was worse, watching her interact with her friends--laughing, engaged. There was so much intimacy in that stupid, hateful, petty gossip they'd share, when they thought I wasn't paying attention. When she brought men home and you could feel the warmth between them. It was sickening.
I'm not going to pretend I made good decisions. I didn't. I did everything I could think of to rebel. Some of it I wanted to. Some of it was just in the hopes she'd do something, say something. I wanted to see some anger, some disappointment, anything at all. And the less she cared the more I hated her for it. I moved out as soon as I could, just to get away. Things haven't gone well for me since then. I hate this apartment. I never used to drink to escape, or womanize just to try to feel something again. I can barely stay on top of my bills. I'm exhausted and unmotivated and purposeless.
The thing is I know there's people worse off than me. My ex came from an abusive past--they just wanted to raise their daughter right, keep her from ever hanging out with boys like me. A lot of good that did. They made mistakes, pushed too hard, tried too hard, and she's stuck with them. At least my mother let me make my own mistakes.
A few weeks ago I noticed, looking out my window in the morning, a black car with some men in it. It was weird but I figured I was just being paranoid. Then I saw them outside of work, and after dinner at the restaurant. I mentioned it to my coworker, who just laughed and said I was crazy. I shrugged it off.
As the days wore on I started noticing that they were everywhere--not just outside. There was equipment--cameras, hidden microphones. I suspect my wires were tapped. And I started noticing the men following me in crowds and public places, stopping by work. They were everywhere. I told my girlfriend over dinner, and she was terrified. Was I on a government watch list? Was it terrorists? Did I have any enemies? Why were they doing this?
I didn't know, and figured it was best not to talk about it too much more. But I noticed that night that I wasn't worried. The more she looked around the more I was aware that, sure, the man a few seats down was probably wearing a wire and, sure, I think that's a camera at the table behind us--but that didn't really bother me.
"This must be terrible for you," she said.
"Not really. I actually feel great. Better than I have in weeks."
"You're out of your mind."
I didn't press the issue. Maybe I was crazy, but it was almost comforting. All these cameras and anonymous suits watching me everywhere I go, making note of my every move, recording my every conversation. I'm important to someone. They're watching me. They'll know. I might die alone, but I won't be forgotten. And some days that's the best you can do.
I don't know what's happened. I'm in a strange city in a strange room. No idea how I got here. But I can't remember what happened before, either. I know who I am, where I should be. But this isn't it. This isn't my house, this isn't my city.
I walk out of my room and head upstairs. At first there's no one here, and I look out the window over the freeway--a freeway I've never seen before. Then a man walks in and greets me casually--using my name. I have never seen this man in my life. I hesitate for a moment. I can't just ask where I am. I pretend that nothing's wrong. "Hey, what's going on?"
He suggests he is heading to a restaurant downtown with a name I recognized; would I like to join him? I say that I would. "I'm just going to take the bus," he says. "It's too nice out for driving." I agree that it is nice weather. We walk to the bus stop, which features the same route numbers I would take downtown back home. As we drive, the bus driver calls out familiar-sounding intersections, but the scenery is all wrong.
We get off at the same intersection we always did, but everything is different. The restaurant isn't the same, but it's clearly the one I used to know. Even the menu seems different, though the waiter clearly knows me, and when I order an item I'd swear I'd never eaten before, he says, "Not feeling adventurous today, huh?"
I don't explain today, but I think I'm missing an opportunity.
My mother always used to tell me "I didn't raise you to act like this." In her defense, she didn't. But I can't remember the last time I was honest. The last time I didn't take the opportunity to lie, cheat, or steal--it's in my nature. I don't know what it is. I'm not proud. But I do it anyway. My mother says it breaks her heart. My mother says lots of things.
I know it's hurt people, too. People who'd ask me questions and I know what they want to hear, even though it's never the truth--the two so seldom are. Sometimes I'll warn them. "I'm just going to lie to you." "You can't trust me." They never seem to believe me. They always regret it come morning. The friends that stick around are the ones that know, and it's uneasy.
The best nights are the nights full of whispered lies that nobody believes, where nobody cares about context or meaning, just that it's right now and we're off pretending we're in a world where we mean what we say and there's a story to it--a story we both know so well we don't have to bother with the questions. Then I'll flee by the morning. Sometimes I'll leave something behind--I think, sometimes, it's just to prove I was here.
I left home three years ago, moved up north from Sacramento to Portland. I left a note for my family and told them I'd write or call or keep in touch. I didn't know how long I'd be gone. I only called from my cell phone, or wrote emails, so they couldn't come find me. They would. They cared. They were good, kind, caring people who were worried about me. They were everything I wasn't.
I was riding the streetcar a few days ago. I can't tell if it was her, but I think I saw my sister there--she's grown in the past couple years, changed her hair, changed her style, but I'd swear it was her. She was staring at me. I only just noticed as I got off. I can still just feel her watching me.
I don't know when she got to Portland. I don't know if she found me or if it's an accident. Three years I've got by without thinking about them or hearing from them, except sometimes on special occasions I'd call. There were no faces, no pain--just their phone-distorted voices trying not to cry. Now she's here and I know she knows it was me. Is she going to come find me? What will I do? Can I run away again? Seattle's not far from here, or Vancouver. Or there's lots of small towns I've only ever driven through. I'm sure I could find work or a good place to stay there.
Or maybe I shouldn't run. It's only fair if she's caught me after a three year head start.
I just try to do right by my family. I'm not a bad man. Sometimes I make mistakes. Sometimes we all do. Sometimes I get angry, and I'm not proud of what I did. I don't expect anyone to be.
She was young when I first met her. So was I, I guess. Sixteen and seventeen, two kids against the world. We got married when it was eighteen and nineteen. We lived with my family for a while, working hard, saving up money when we could. We were going to make it, she and I.
When we saved up enough money we moved to the city, where the money was tight and the hours were long, and one night she lost her job and she told me when I came home and I was just so mad, because how were we going to pay our bills and make it? It was like she'd lost the entire future for us. It's not even that I didn't mean to shout or hit her. But it was wrong and I know that now.
Eventually she ran away and I don't know where she went. I can't go back to my family. I can't find her. She called me once, from a pay phone, and I told her how much I was sorry, but she said that wasn't enough. She's okay now, she says. She's in Chicago, she's found work. I told her I wished she'd come back, but she doesn't understand we all make mistakes.