No One Can Ever Know This Happened
This memory—this one memory—is whole.
The school bell rings at 2:43. My boyfriend, the first one I’ve ever had, doesn’t want to drive me home. He wants only to drive his car fast through the trees and dirt until his tires crunch up his gravel driveway. He wants to throw his shoes on the floor and curl his socks under his jeans and play video games on the big screen. My first boyfriend wants to be alone.
So he leaves me at school. He knows I’ll get a ride from Kellen, who lives only a mile closer to my house but is always willing to drive me home so I don’t have to climb inside the school bus with its cracked pleather seats and smell of iron. Kellen whose wide thumbs fly across the numbers on his flip phone. Kellen who always answers. “Kd,” he texts me, “Chu doin?”
I loop my arm in his and we walk to his car. I press my face into his upper-arm. It’s doughy underneath his t-shirt. “How was your day?” I ask. I look up at Kellen and he looks straight ahead and his big steps carry me.
Later, I am twenty-two years old and in a bed that isn’t mine. I hear a voice. “I don’t mean to be a dick,” he says. My whole body is folded in his arms, his cheek pressed against mine. “But no one can ever know this happened.”
Don’t worry, I think. I will make sure no one knows. Tomorrow I’ll drive you to Chipotle in the rain. We’ll sit on the wall of my front porch and eat burrito bowls with our bare toes pressed into wet concrete. Or, instead, we’ll take your car to Meijer. You’ll buy goat cheese, smoked mozzarella, basil, and spinach for making fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ll fry them in olive oil on your kitchen stove. Maybe we’ll finally watch Jane Eyre on my laptop, or maybe we’ll just talk about doing that and listen to your record player instead. You’ll put on some gypsy music and tell me you’d like to go to France and join a band.
Tomorrow, I think, we will be back to normal. “Kd,” you’ll text me. “Chu doin?”
Kellen remembers the beach.
“Why hasn’t this ever happened before?” I ask him from his bed, my legs around his waist, his fingers tangled in my hair, my lips inches away from his, because this is what’s on my mind. This is a surprise: this night in this bed.
“You always dated someone else,” he says. And then he tells me about the beach, the sand, the waves of home, of Lake Michigan.
I don’t remember. Maybe it was an afternoon before I went on a date with another boyfriend. Maybe it was a hot weekday when I didn’t have anything else to do. That summer I never had anything to do.
But then, here’s a picture dated July 8, 2010. There I am, stretched on a towel. My hair falls to the side and I look at all the people spread out on the sand, their umbrellas and buckets and children yelling and laughing. All those people and me and Kellen in the sand too.
I must be talking. My hand is curled into a ball and I can feel it reach out to touch his hand, the one holding the camera. Look at that ice cream cone, that man reading a book, those kids on a swing.
I remember now. In this picture, I’m in the sand and my friend who always answers is next to me, taking pictures while I point at the shiny, loud, summer people around us.
Kellen also remembers my breast.
Maybe he saw it when I twisted to point at the sun over the dunes. Maybe I stood up and shook grains of sand off my bare legs. He saw my breast—was it the left or the right?—peek from my swimsuit, the green one with white stripes that just barely covered my chest, even when I was seventeen and the arches of my rib bones gave my middle its only curves.
Kellen remembers my breast but he doesn’t tell me until five years later when he sees it again. This time, he sees them both. They’re completely bare. They’re bigger now and in his hands, warm even though they’re above the sheets and it’s snowing outside. I wonder if my skin feels the way he imagined it would.
This is more complicated for you than it is for me. I do nothing but press my fingers into your palm, but crawl into your bed and cover myself in your blanket, but rest my cheek on your chest. I do nothing but part my lips when yours come near, but smile my smallest, sweetest smile when your legs push into mine, but let you knead my breasts with those wide, rough thumbs. My silence is nothing. I whisper, “I’m sorry,” when we go to sleep.
We sleep, we wake, we do it again, and still, I am with you.
On my porch in the fall, Kellen and I drink wine. We swing back and forth and I keep my legs close to my chest and clutch a glass in my hand. I laugh from my belly and stretch my neck and look at him. I watch his lips as he smiles. Look at him in sweaters. Look at him drink merlot, pinot, cheap blends of red. This could be the chance, I think one night.
Doesn’t that thought feel foreign to me? Even when I walked through high school with my cheek on his arm, even on the beach with all that hot sand, I didn’t want anything but what I had. I wanted nothing more than a friend.
When we walked the halls of high school, Kellen was music. He was an incensed car with tape cassettes and paper on the floor. He was rolling down the windows with both arms. He was pot brownies while housesitting and record store shopping and dancing, dancing, dancing.
Kellen would never want me, I told myself then. He would never need me. He was all the warmth on his own.
I who read and wrote and danced, I was meant to date someone stable, someone who studied business or computer science. I found that and knew Kellen would too, that stability.
I did not ever think I was meant for art.
I come home in the morning, tiptoe through the living room so I won’t wake anyone up, and flip through the dictionary. Before I shower, I want to confirm a word’s meaning.
Merriam says it means “to take something from (someone) by lying or breaking a rule.” It can also mean “to prevent (someone) from having something that he or she deserves or is expecting to get.”
“I am a cheater,” I whisper. “I have cheated.”
On Halloween, he holds me. I spend hours in a bathroom while Ke$ha vomits the bottle of Jack Daniels she’s been wielding as a prop. Kellen helps me carry her home. My roommates make him a midnight sandwich. He leaves my house while I am fishing an earring out of the toilet.
When I text him, he walks back to my pink house. Everyone else is asleep. We lie down on the couch and fall asleep too. Something crashes outside and I wake up. I look around me, remember where I am. It’s dark, but I can see Kellen’s Halloween costume, yellowed and smelling of alcohol and marijuana. I am against him and our hands are clasped on my chest. I kiss his and fall back asleep.
The sun rises. I can feel my heart flutter. I think, this is a bad idea. I nudge him awake and with one arm still around his waist and one hand still holding his, I tell him he should go home, sleep in his own bed. Then I am in mine, awake. I wish I hadn’t told him to leave. I wish I’d slept there with him.
In the morning, the first day of November, I sip a mug of tea and my face flushes and burns as I tell my roommates, “He held my hand.” I ask them with a wince, “Is that bad?” I am aware, though, that I don’t want to repent. I want only to be absolved. My roommates indulge me. “Maybe you’ll just be the kind of friends that hook up sometimes,” one says with a shrug.
I shake my head. No, that’s not who we are. I think this will be the worst of my sins. I can still feel his vast, rough hand around my tiny, soft one. And I want to feel it again.
It is my first night in this house with two stoves and dark wood and a stained glass window in the living room. It’s late and Kellen texts me. He wants to welcome me back to Kalamazoo after a summer apart. He wants to see my pink house with the porch swing. I am wearing only an old boyfriend’s too-big t-shirt and almost in bed, but I text him back anyway. “Knock quietly,” I say.
I answer the door and Kellen’s lips are purple. A glass jug of wine dangles from his right hand and he sets it down to wrap me in his arms. “KD!” he yells. I show him the kitchen and the porch swing and he is impressed. “Porch wine!” he cries.
I don’t know what we talk about because I am tired, embarrassed to be in my pajamas, embarrassed for him that the jug of wine in his hands is empty. Embarrassed that it is a jug of wine. But we talk as we always do. We swing for a long time, talk until the streets of Kalamazoo are emptied of barefoot college students and convenience store regulars.
He goes home. I go to sleep.
It’s a Friday in February. I wear my snow boots dancing because that’s the kind of wintery Michigan night it is. The air makes my nose burn and my eyes move slowly.
Kellen wants to dance with me, he says, but he’s too late. He comes to my pink house instead. I sit close to him and shiver and he rubs my hand under a blanket. We are on the couch and everything is fuzzy with wine and whiskey. He slides his fingers between mine and squeezes.
Then, my head is on his shoulder. Then, we’re lying down and my legs are around him. Then, his arms are around me. Then, his wet lips kiss mine. Finally, I’m warm.
“Kellen, did you smoke pot tonight?”
“I can smell it on your breath. I like that smell.” And he kisses me. And I can taste it.
I pray for you in the morning when your eyelids look clean and haven’t opened to the day and your cheeks are soft and still and your lips are red with the stain of slumber and last night’s drinks. God, keep him peaceful.
I trace a cross on your forehead with my thumb and I’m not sure whether I have the right to bless you, but I do it anyway. I want so badly for you to forgive yourself. I want so badly for you to forgive me, for you to still be my greatest friend, for you to not hold this against me.
All these things because I am with you and will always be with you.
I pray for you in the morning light and I pray silently because I don’t know if I would be able to pray if your eyes were open, if they were looking into mine. I don’t know if you would let me. But this prayer needs to be said and it needs to be heard.
You are not a bad person and I want to whisper this to you and to myself, but I know you don’t want to talk about this. I know you don’t want me to even reference it because you sometimes sleep and also lie awake with your back to me. I swallow my whispers whole and forbid them to escape my mouth.
Instead, I pray for you in every morning’s light.
It’s the guilt, the way it curls around me while I sleep, makes my face hot with shame when I wake up, makes me curse with every crunch of snow on the walk home in the morning. Fuck, shit, damn, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
But then there’s the secret, the absolution of silence. Then there’s the forgetting that makes me do it again.
I hate these words. Hate the way they scrape my throat like broken glass and fill my stomach with vomit.
“We did a bad thing,” says Kellen without looking at me. And I know he’s right.
Then, I turn away. I open my eyes and look at the wall. There, taped to sheetrock, is her picture. Her smile is bright white and her hair is blond like mine but longer and straighter. I know her. A reminder.
“Do you love her?” I whisper and my voice cracks. I clear my throat.
“Of course,” he says.
I want to tear the picture from the wall, but I can’t, so I squint and try to imagine she is just a girl from a magazine. She doesn’t live around here. I won’t have to see her. This will work for a while. Already, she is less real to me.
I was always dating someone else. And now, so is he.
One night, I ask Kellen if he knows a song. I already know he does, but I want to talk about it and don’t know another way. “Star Crossed Lovers,” I say. We’re sitting in a bar. Kellen’s friends are playing jazz and he and I are sitting alone. Our knees touch. We’re sharing a pint of peanut butter porter.
Good, I think when Kellen answers. He loves that song, loves Duke Ellington. He says he always wants to play it, but no one in his band agrees.
I tell him I’ve just written a paper. I’ve been reading a novel and listening to Duke while I read. The book talks of star-crossed lovers fated to be together, but also fated to be apart. They get only one brief moment in time.
My thesis, I explain, is about reincarnation—the music and literature that allows these almost- lovers to meet in each of their lives. “They get closer and closer,” I say, “Until, one day, their souls join forever.” Kellen is looking at me. He's listening. He drinks in little sips. His leg rubs against mine under the table.
I want to quote the novel, read my favorite line aloud,“Il m'est arrivé de chérir profondément des êtres que j'ai perdus, et c'est peut-être pour cela qu'on écrit, pour les retrouver et cheminer l'espace d'un
instant, à leurs côtés.” I want to feel those sounds form in my mouth, but I stop there instead. Kellen doesn’t speak French.
“I like that idea,” he says through a sip of porter. I watch the words on his lips. Of course, I think. Kellen is this paper. My hope is my thesis.
In the spring, I go to New Orleans. I kiss other boys and dance to other musicians’ jazz, but I miss him. He must miss me too. I come home and we each go out into the night separately, but when my roommates are pulled into the depths of sleep and I am in the kitchen with a cup of tea, he calls me. Or maybe I call him.
Like that, I leave. I step through the front door and down the fog-covered street until I see his silhouette. Then I am swept, my arm in his, down one street, turn right on another, another right, once more, up on the porch, in the house, shoes off, up the stairs, coat off, in bed.
I am inside that smell again—wine and weed mixing on his breath. “How was it in New Orleans?” he asks me.
“It was nice,” I sigh and slide into his arms. I feel his fingers inside my sweater, one hand around my waist, the other grazing my chest, cupping the back of my neck.
“I can stay, right?” I ask. He hums. I stay.
When a shaft of sunlight through the window wakes me, our backs are pressed together. I whisper, “I”m going home.” I walk into the spring. No more snow to crunch under my feet. Only fresh grass and singing birds and yellow, light. No more of this, I think. And like that, no words to end it, it’s done.
I am bleeding, tired, dizzy. All of this because I am with you, because I have been with you and I probably shouldn’t have been.
I am broken because when I think of you on a plane to the South to visit, I’m forced to think of her as a real, living person. My eyes close and my head spins. But there is something about forgetting. Something that makes it easier after the prayer.
I miss you because you are not mine and will not ever be, because our lips touch only in the nights when we are taken with bottles and cups and full mugs on the porch. I miss you because you ask me to be silent and I will be and I can feel the silence stretch between us. This is not something we will ever discuss.
I miss you and will miss you, will bleed and keep bleeding, will make attempts at secrecy and silence, until our souls join—on paper, in song, reincarnate.
Until then, I decide, I will be with you.