Set-brooches: “MEMORY” 2006 by Mila Kalnitskaya & Micha Maslennikov.
We walk together, arms linked against the night and rain. My scarlet headscarf complements his gray woolen army coat and transforms us into a cliché of immigrants from a different era. We look to the world like married refugees, all Eastern Europe and the memory of cinema, an accident of scathing metaphor made manifest. We both notice and remark upon it, though we name-check different countries.
He plucks memories from the air like ripe fruit, free hand in the air sketching shapes from his childhood, handing each one to me as a gift to eat, placing his history into mine, his time-distant innocence shaped into a protective amulet against the world we are taking part of this evening to hide from. “And that hill there,” he says – up, a sweep down – gesturing like a conductor counting, “there used to be more bushes there. It was great, foliage full of tunnels the adults knew nothing about. I had my first rumble on that hill.”
We are traversing the grounds of his elementary school, thirty years distant, though the architecture remains unchanged. Low buildings. Brown walls. He tells me stories. Story after story. This is where the bus used to drop him off. This is where it used to pick him up. The porch of this portable is where he broke another boy’s nose.
“I used to have a temper. I was a small kid and it made me fight harder.”
“I could tell, ” I say, tying the broken nose and scrapping to my knowledge of his punk days. Dayton boots and liberty spikes, so young that he would have to drive to Canada to drink. Vancouver of the nineties, when the Lamplighter was a grungy punk bar, back when I was little. A city as dead as my care for it.
He seems perturbed, regretful. “Really? I got over it, though. I’ve recovered.”
I wonder if we ever passed in the street. I would have been just as young as he was in the memories he is describing. Absolutely invisible. Under four feet and also the smallest kid in class. Scrappy, too, though for different reasons.
I want to kiss him for this. Wrap his heart in warmth in thanks. It hurts that I can’t. I am going away, perhaps forever, and this is our swan song. He is an odd man for choosing this farewell, as it is an odd gift, though it would be a very good one if our relationship were different. I try to explain this, but fail. He begins to doubt he’s doing the right thing. In some ways, perhaps he isn’t, (we are self made exiles this hour, trespassing in the chilly rain), but I press on and ask for more. He doesn’t know the gravity he possesses. He feeds me, but doesn’t quite understand how hungry I am or how to make me hale.
“And this is where we caught bees. They would sit on flowers and you could sneak up on them,” he gestures again, displaying methods of boyhood bee capture, both hands making a curious shape then coming suddenly together like the materials inside a fission bomb. “We trapped them in our hands with a clap that stunned them. They wouldn’t sting us, that way. They would just sit.”
He opens his hands again, showing me the treasure of his imaginary insect prize. He doesn’t only talk with his hands, he communicates with his entire body, curling around his stories like a cat around a leg, a modern pantomime.
I shiver from the cold, bite my jaw closed against my betrayal-chattering teeth. One chance to memorize this. One. It could be that this might be the very last time these memories will come to light. Every memory in the world, no matter how poignant, always has a final time, and this gift is too full of grace to let any slip through my clumsy fingers.
He gives me the name of the boy he would catch bees with and descriptions of the open layout inside the buildings and which windows he looked out of during kindergarten. He gives me his enthusiasm, wrapped up in string. He gives me his life, parceled into small, lovely, and bite-sized pieces, the better to slip down my throat and into the furnace that heats my soul. Pound for pound, he shines brighter than our sun.
This is where he used to get on the roof by scaling the brick wall with his fingers and toes, like I used to do until my accident. He demonstrates the action, back to me, and I am startled by a memory from when we first met, when we walked downtown and he dropped behind me to hook my ankle with his hand, explaining how he caught calves as a boy on a summer ranch, a pun I appreciated on the spot. We began our history then, and here, much later, in this dark and damp playground goodbye, the two moments, alpha and omega, come together and merge forever.
“I spent six years here. Every single day. So strange to think about, now.”
“Because it’s the longest you’ve ever been anywhere?”
He blinks, gazes into the distance. “I guess so. I didn’t even spend that much time in college.”
I am cracking. This is marvelous, but also impossibly difficult. I do not want to be a refugee. But this is what I am given, so it is what I have, and I’ll take what I can get.. I can’t help but think about his choices, about where his life led after, how it doesn’t contain space for me. My life will be less without him, but it could be argued that his will be better.
I speculate about what he might have looked like a a child, even as I know I will get it wrong. I wish for a picture. Something else promised then rescinded.
He frowns, remembering, considering mortality and fate.
I wish he would turn to me. I wish this wasn’t our goodbye. I wish he would turn and smile, give me that instead. Smile with what brought us together, smile with what pulled us apart, smile with the warmth that opens a lily to the heat.