April 07, 2015
The moon is falling out of the sky and into the lake. He’s going to AA meetings in the late afternoon, and swigging whiskey in the car after, until he can forget his name, until his breath is soured. Until he can forget how you point up at him and say wherever we are we will always have the moon, because he doesn’t want the responsibility of holding us together. His soft heart hangs too heavy; the bottle light in his hands. It is all our fault.
We’re twenty-two, Luke and me, holding hands on the ruined bridge, callused palm to callused palm—where the blisters are setting in from the wooden paddles of our canoes—and we are looking at the water because we’re too something to look at each other. Too sad, perhaps, or too afraid to lose this. We’re alone on a bridge and somewhere a clock is ringing in the morning, but we can’t hear it, and next thing I know his thumb’s tracing tiny circles around my knuckle, and he’s gasping; because the rain has started to pour, drenching us in the January air like sadness does, cold on our skin, and still deeper.
Maybe we could forget it. Run for cover. It’d be romantic. Clutching at each other, soaked and laughing silly, leaning heavy against each other. But neither one of us will break the stillness. I am curling into him because his coat is too long and too wide, and he’s trying to envelop me in it, and my body is shivering against his shivering body, but our cheeks are flushed blazing furnace pink, and we don’t know what to say to each other. The night is quiet. We are alone. His hands are blistered ugly, but he is beautiful.
See, I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’m not ready.
Before all of this, four summers ago, I really believed that the hardest part was starting. The first step out of the house before a morning jog, when you still feel boneless and bleary-eyed. The first words on a blank screen, to type: Dear Luke, I miss you. After that it’s supposed to be easy, you keep going. You find your rhythm. You put one foot in front of the other and you thud against the asphalt or the dirt or the mud for the fifteen-hundredth time, and then fifteen hundred and two, and three, and four. You go until your fingertips don’t feel cold anymore, until your head filters out the noise of the birds and the leaves, and then there’s nothing else but you, and your legs, and the early rain, which feels cool against your cheeks. That’s not hard at all, once you get there.
Four summers ago I tried a beginning for myself—packed up my room and left Philomath, Oregon, to drive north to Whitworth University. To Spokane, Washington. Luke was supposed to come with me; or that was the plan, at least. After, I told him that it didn’t matter—that we’d make it however far the gap—and he smiled slow and sad as the April drizzle trickled through the trees. Like he didn’t believe me. But he pointed up at the sky anyway.
“We’ll always have the moon,” he said.
Tomorrow, I leave Philomath again. My trunk is full of laundry bags and my daddy’s cooking: new recipes he’s trying out for the campground café, gluten free and kale-infused for the Portland crowd. Familiar food that reminds me of summer mornings on picnic benches by the Willamette River as the campers splashed in their kayaks. My parents have owned the campground for fourteen years, now, and they’re still not tired of it.
There’s stuff from New Year’s, too, a week ago, when my mom’s side of the family celebrate with beet-filled eggs and yeasted blinis. As long as I can remember, they’ve thrown a party for the camp staff on New Year’s Eve. Luke hadn’t been around for it, this year, like he’d been in years past. He’d volunteered for the celebration up at the rehab center instead, so I’d accepted him begging off, whatever. Not a big deal. But at midnight somebody had put on that old Billie Holiday record, and my parents had swayed together under the back porch light, and I’d been out there in the shadows, looking at the moon, wondering if somewhere along the Willamette, he was looking too. Arms wrapped around myself in his ragged old sweatshirt, I’d listened. The camp staff counted down, rang in the change. I tried to picture us. Me and Luke, dancing cheek to cheek at a party. With my college friends in Seattle, perhaps. At his uncle’s Hogmanay in Albany, maybe. But for the first time, I couldn’t see it.
The next day he’d called to tell me about his night at the rehab center: Matty Collins, who told them about driving his truck into a support beam, and the washed-out Sylvie whose children never visited. He’d been like them, once, and he was excited to be mentoring them, showing them the way. He sounded happy, talking about the fireworks in the sky and the smiles on their faces, sitting around fire pit on the center’s patio. Toasting to new beginnings with hot chocolate and marshmallows. Trusting their resolutions to the winter air.
“I talked about you,” he told me, and even through the static his voice sounded warm. “How much it helped me when I was in the middle of it, to imagine our future together.”
I didn’t say anything.
Before everything, Luke had been offered this scholarship to UDub, but he’d turned it down in favor of a place at Whitworth, with me. I’d said at the time that this was stupid, but he wouldn’t hear it. Said UDub was too far from Spokane, which seems laughable now. Anyway, this was senior year in high school, and that wasn’t the first time he’d said he loved me, but it was the first time I’d felt the weight of it. We’d been lying on the wet grass, and it was springtime, and the words settled down heavy on my chest, but I welcomed them.
When his dad had the accident, I thought: okay, that’s something we can handle. Luke would have another year at home, maybe, to help out with the store. His dad had made a living selling sports equipment, and the whole town had loved him. I’d been as shocked as anyone when he passed, when the tox reports came in to say he’d been drinking. Luke deferred his Whitworth acceptance, burying himself in the store, helping his mom. He didn’t talk about his dad with me, but that was fine, because Luke didn’t talk about a lot of things. We kept planning for the future, for him to join me when the New Year came around. And then for me to come home, when it became clear that he wasn’t leaving Oregon.
For years, I’d been counting on finding work in Corvallis, a city that was closer to home. Luke and I had discussed saving for a while, until we could afford an apartment there. This was when I thought I’d come back to the area after graduation, and I was certain I knew what my future looked like.
So three months ago, when Professor Higgins referred me for the job in Seattle, I told myself it was an experience. That was all. She had a friend working for the city, in the Office of Sustainability, where she thought I’d be a good fit. It was flattering. I drove to Seattle with my college roommate, and we crammed into her boyfriend’s tiny apartment, fed chickens in his yard. We did Seattle things: explored Pike Place market, ate hot dogs at midnight, stumbled upon two separate poetry slams. When I finally got to the interview I was nervous. Guilty, too, because those nerves meant I wanted it. I called Luke right after, but he was bursting with pride over his day, because my mom had asked him to help out with the tiny campers, and when he finally remembered my interview, I brushed him off, like it wasn’t something serious.
When I heard back, though, two days after finals, that the job was mine if I wanted it, I didn’t want to say anything but yes.
There’s a world outside of Philomath, I realized. Maybe not for Luke, but for me.
So this is it; my bags are packed, my tank is full of gas. My last semester of college starts tomorrow, and the job starts two weeks after graduation. I’ve taken care of everything else. This is the last thing on my list, and I’ve had weeks to think up the words… but I’m struggling. Luke’s holding me close on the ruined bridge, and he’s talking about missing me, now, and what we’ll do, after. He’s making plans to buy tickets for my graduation, saving every dime he makes for a place to call our own. I’m pulling myself from the ground, root by stubborn root, and all the while, he’s digging in, planting seeds.
I feel his hand on my shoulder, the firm pressure of his fingers, pressing into my hip. For a second I believe maybe it’s possible to be everywhere at once. Here with him, and in Seattle. I can feel his body with his familiar hair, his clothes, like he’s fresh, anew under the pale moon. We belong here, possess each other, and that grounds me, because home is not the houses we grew up in. They were temporary. Home became the sluggish thud of his heart and the way I itch to say come with me, stay with me, everything will be alright. But it won’t.
A person can’t be a home, if you don’t go home to them.
One night, when I was home from college during my sophomore year, Luke and I went running in the woods. We ran the path we’d run hundreds of times before; down along the babbling creeks, up where the trees were gnarled, twisted so close together we could barely fit two abreast, and then stopping so he could catch his breath by the river’s edge, before we headed back towards the forest road. He’d been struggling with the pace, sweating hard, stumbling a little. I’d been pretending I couldn’t smell the liquor on his breath. He’d started talking, real quiet, about his dad, and he didn’t talk about his dad too much those days so I’d slowed down by the bridge and tried my best to listen.
“Everything’s changing so fast,” he said, twisting his mouth. He was looking at me with these wide, earnest eyes, and I was reaching for him, like I always would.
“Not everything,” I said, clinging to him. Pointing to the moon.
When it’s all said and done, I feel bereft. I want to touch him again, but he won’t let me. That’s over now, his body says. I stretch out my fingers but he turns from them, the sweet curve of his shoulders rigid and tense. I want to put my hands on them, smooth them down, say look, breathe, everything will be alright. But it won’t.
The thing is, I never thought it’d be hard to keep going. I used to tell Luke, all the time: long distance is the only distance. Go big or go home. I was a marathon girl through and through, tan lines from summer runs around the lakes, and the familiar smell and burn of icy heat on my legs. I liked the way I could flake out for hours afterwards, how Luke would pull my sweaty head onto his lap and drip water into my open mouth, laughing every time a drop escaped down my chin to my collarbones. I liked to feel like I’d earned it. Anyway, Luke was the first person I’d been with, and I liked how he fit with me. When we ran together, I liked that he kept up. From the get go, we’d been so steady.
He’s just standing there now, watching the river like nothing momentous has happened. Like the earth below his feet hasn’t been rooted up like weeds by my dirty hands, like the moment hasn’t taken up residence in my chest, sorry catching in my throat like pebbles in a stream.
Some of it wasn’t so unexpected. I think anybody who’s ever been to college hates midterms—but I hated them more than most. Not because of the studying, or the late night cramming binges, though eventually those would catch up to me. But because six, seven weeks into each semester, that was when the homesickness for Luke would set in. I always hoped that next semester would be easier. That we’d be able to see it for the milestone it was, the halfway point of our separation. Instead: we fought. Screaming, terrible fights, spitting words down the phone that couldn’t be soothed by a sweet touch. And then there were the silences. Weeks when he wouldn’t answer my calls at all, and I’d be afraid to pick up the phone to hear bad news from Oregon. When I finally did we’d both be worn down to nothing, exchanging soft words that couldn’t scratch at the surface of our problems. Desperate for something that would feel like closeness.
Things got better, I thought, once he started going to the rehab center. Not straight away, for him, because these things take time, and rehabilitation, by nature, isn’t easy. And not for me, either, because for those three months he spent as a patient I could only call him on Sundays, and sometimes he’d sound exhausted, and sometimes he’d sound hopeless, but eventually I began to imagine the color back in his cheeks, just from his tone of voice.
He’d tell me, then, about his life at the center. How he’d started helping my mom out at the campgrounds, too, and the serenity of the canoes. How every night he’d look up at the moon, hanging bright in the sky, and think about how it was the same moon I saw. He’d tell me this helped him to imagine it, a time when we’d be together again.
Somewhere, Billie Holiday played on an old cassette player.
Now, it’s just Luke and me, twenty-two on the ruined bridge. We are looking at the water because we’re too something to look at each other. I’m dreading running back down the path alone, into this world with no Luke in. I’m thinking this is it, because I’ve said all I can say, and my mind’s made up. Or it better be, because there’s no going back. We have to go forward now, to a place where Luke falls out of love with me.
And then Luke does the most surprising thing. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, because I, of all people, should know how big his heart is. Anyway, I’m choking down the urge to take it all back, to make a promise I can’t keep, and he reaches out, trembling in the darkness. We can’t look at each other, so we look to the sky, instead, and we wait for the new morning. Luke takes my hand, and squeezes.
And so the drunken moon is falling out of the sky and into the trees. And one day soon, we’ll forget how we used to love each other.
ABIGAIL MITCHELL is an English writer with a BA in History from the University of Cambridge, Peterhouse. Currently, she is a graduate student in the MPW Program at the University of Southern California, where she is also an assistant lecturer. Abigail has recently been published by Drunk Monkeys, paper nautilus, FORTH Magazine and The Butter, and her pilot script, “Rule 74,” was the grand prize winner for the Canada International Film Festival’s 2015 Screenplay Competition. She can be found on Twitter at @_abbimitchell.