copyright 2014 by Steve S. Saroff
We met in the eleventh grade of high school, after I had come back from more than half a year on the road. I was wild then, not wanted, and I had surprised and disappointed everyone by coming home. Spending seven months hitchhiking alone — criss-crossing the continent eight times — had given me, as a seventeen year old, too much experience. Nothing as terrible as the tales of Vietnam which friends of my older brother had brought back a few years before, but my wanderings left me emptier than anyone should be. The nights in the cities; always being hungry; sleeping under bridges; being searched again and again by police; being beaten up; shoplifting food; working in fields in Idaho; sleeping on beaches in Oregon; watching thunderheads over the Canadian plains; standing in storms; standing in deserts; spending a week in a drunk-tank in El Paso; and, listening to the stories of drunks, the soldiers, the Christians, and all the strangers who gave me rides.
I came home because I needed something gentle after that.
Before running away, my friends had been the rough ones in our school. Pot smoking football players and guys with slouched shoulders, afternoon jobs and their own cars. They bragged about fights and about screwing and they shared girls. In John Settons “Cabin,” a shack built of stolen plywood in the woods near the interstate, they met and shared a girl named Grace. They did this with Grace every few days, and I was invited but never showed up. Even before leaving home, I was looking — really just hoping — for something much more.
I came back in November. School had already started, and I was only part there. Every few days I would hitch hike to the Blue Ridge Mountains and spend nights in the woods. I would build fires and sit by them, next to their warmth and light. There was early snow in those hardwood forests, and when I would crawl into my sleeping bag I dreamed of how someday I might share these forest places, these secret, beautiful places of the Shenandoah and the Monongahela.
My father had given up on me then, and out of that respect I left him alone too. The school, though, was still trying. But the classes were more boring, and the guidance counselors and school shrink — both of which I had to see to be able to attend any classes at all — were just idiotic. As a habitual truant they wanted to kick me out of school. Most problem kids, though, fit stereotypes either as violent, criminal, or as completely withdrawn. But I was none of these.
There was one meeting after I had been gone for five days, having left on a Friday and coming back on a Thursday, mid morning, when the guidance counselor simply exploded. “You want us to believe that you just spent five nights camping out by yourself?” she yelled.
I nodded ‘Yes.’
“Were you taking drugs?” the shrink asked.
I shook my head, ‘No.’
“Why should we let you keep going to school?” The counselor asked.
“What do you do by yourself?”
I answered then, quietly, “Read. Think a bit.”
Then one of them began to yell, saying that I could “Damn well,” read and think in school, or at a job, but not in the woods.
But, still, they let me keep attending English, math and physics, the only classes that I would go to at all.
I could have told the truth: that I sat in those oak and hickory forests and thought about the stories that I had listened to, and about all the strange and frightening people I had met, and, mostly, I thought about what I would do next, where I could go.
It was one of those winter fires which helped me find her. In Mr. Bunday’s afternoon physics class, she came in and sat next to me. I had always looked at her. I had always had her in my impossible dreams. She was frail, and I only understood her delicate look as beauty. I knew nothing about her, except that she seemed to belong to group of people whom didn’t cross into the sort of people I spent time with.
As Mr. Bunday scrawled equations on the black board, she said, in a whisper, “You smell like smoke.”
I looked at her, but she wasn’t looking at me, so I didn’t answer. Then she whispered, “You smell good.”
This time when I looked at her she glanced up at me and she smiled. I had absolutely no idea what to say, but we kept looking at each other, and I stammered, “I spent last night outside. Built a fire.”
“Where outside?” She asked, still in a quiet whisper — looking down again into her notebook.
I glanced at Mr. Bunday who was still busy at the blackboard. “I go into Shenandoah park,” I said, “They don’t allow fires there, but I just go into the woods, away from the trails. I hitchhiked back here in the morning.”
Then she asked, “Who did you go with?”
“By myself,” I answered.
“That must be lonely,” She said.
I didn’t answer for a few minutes. We both pretend to be paying close attention to Mr. Bunday. Eight months before I would have answered her with some tough guy “No,” or “Not really.” But I somehow knew that I had been a given a chance to tell the truth. I had been in jail because I wouldn’t give a judge my real name or age. I had blistered my hands in fields while other migrant workers laughed at my not having a pair of gloves. I had gone to sleep hungry and woken up hungry many, many times. So I told the truth.
“It is lonelier here,” I said.
She looked at me and said, this time loud enough so that I could hear the music in her voice, “It is lonely here, isn’t it?”
I didn’t answer her.
The next day I am in physics class and she is there and she sits next to me again. We don’t say anything or even look at each other. Mr. Bunday starts lecturing, but I am listening to her sounds more closely — her breathing, the sound of her pencil, the rustling of her notebook. I am feeling outcast again, and more so because I have told her that I slept outside by a fire, and I am thinking that she was teasing me about my smelling good. I am thinking that she will have told her friends about how I am a freak. I am thinking that she will be like the counselors and the shrinks — them not understanding how I could chose to be alone. I am failing every class and will not even come close to graduating, and there is no reason to keep coming to school at all, but I try right then to pay attention to Mr. Bunday, but I have missed so many classes that his explanations are losing me. I give up there and then. I am deciding that I will leave. I am thinking that I will just stand up, walk out of the class, go and fill a pack, and this time not come back.
I am six foot two and I weigh 170 pounds. I can run a mile in five minutes. I have read more books than most college graduates ever will. I have long, curling hair tied back with a bandana. I know about stars and rocks. By listening to people I am able to recognize the good ones from the others. I can sleep well on hard ground. I have eaten Grouse that I have killed with stones, and I have feasted on Brown Trout caught by the banks of Western rivers. But I do not recognize anything good in myself. I think that I am a failure because I am not a track athlete. I think that I am illiterate because I am failing my classes. I think I am ugly because I am so tall, an outcast because I am happiest in the woods, and I feel that I am unlovable because I am only calm when I am alone. I’m seventeen.
But somehow I made it through that class, and then the bell is ringing and then she is standing up.
She hands me a note.
It’s a sheet of notebook paper folded and refolded into a two-inch square. She says, “I wrote to you last night,” and she turns and walks fast into the crowd which is pushing its way out of the room.
I am still sitting. I’ve covered her note with my hand and I am excited but lost. Finally I get up and go into the hallway and outside. There are a few acres of trees next to the school — a place where kids go to smoke cigarettes or dope — and I go into these woods. I sit down out of sight from anyone. Then I unfold the note and read it.
She says that she wants to know me. She says people talk about me and wonder about me. She says that she hopes that I will not laugh at her for writing to me. She apologizes for her spelling. She says I can just tear this note up and she will never bother me again. She says she is writing while in bed and hopes that I don’t mind that she is thinking of me.
I hear the bell ringing for the next class but I stay in the woods. I hug myself, sitting there with the cigarette butts and empty beer cans everywhere. I re-read the note again and again. One page of handwriting from a frail girl, and there is more salvation there than in the combined pages of every book I had ever read.
I stay in those littered woods, sitting against a White Oak, for most of the afternoon, far past the end of the school day, slowly writing her a one-page letter in return. Putting my words down slow. Listening to the sound of every sentence. I wrote to her saying I wanted to know her too. I wrote to her saying that I would not tear her letter up. I wrote to her saying that she was beautiful and that her eyes were gray like clouds.
That evening, I found her house. I looked up her address in the phone book. I ran there. Panting in the shadows and mostly hiding, I finally saw her at a 2nd story window, by herself, in a room which I had guessed correctly was hers. I threw a pebble up there and she opened the window. She was smiling and I could see that she was happy.
“I wrote you a letter,” I said.
“Do you want to come in?” She asked.
I said, “Can you come out?”
She said, “Let me check.” Then she was gone and a minute later she was outside and I had given her my letter, folded like hers, into a small square.
She said, “Can I read this now?”
“Yes,” I said, “But I have to go,” and just like that I turned, and started running back to my father’s house. I had been told stories about how to avoid Claymore mines. I had listened to graphic descriptions of sexual positions and perversions. I had listened to advice about God, advice about how to take drugs, advice about how to make money, and I had paid close attention to everything, but no one had ever told me how to deliver a love letter.
It didn’t matter though. What she had started with her folded note was such a good thing that neither of our inexperience was going to ruin it. Rather, it helped. Instead of talking, or even phone calls, or a “date,” for the next two weeks, every day we traded folded letters in physics class.
Her letters to me were sometimes just a single paragraph. Once, just a word.
A Friday afternoon in April. At the start of the class I had given her what I had written the night before. I had left my father’s house and had run to her house. It was so late that no lights were on; the house was dark. I then walked two blocks away. I sat down on the curb, under a streetlight.
“2:00 a.m.,” my letter started, “I am sitting under a street light on your street, writing to you. I ran to your house. The window of your room is dark. I like knowing that I am sitting here close to you as you sleep. Tomorrow, when you read this, will you laugh at me because I am lonely for you? Will you laugh because I want to hear your voice now? I am here on this street and you are up there, in your room.”
I gave her this folded note, and I saw her read it during class, but she does not look at me. Mr. Bunday lectures, and I hear her pencil taking notes. Then the bell is ringing, and she hands me a folded note, stands up, and walks fast away from me. I unfold her note. A plain sheet of notebook paper. One word, with no capitalization, no adornments. Just the small word, “love.”
Now I am reading her one word letter. Now I am pushing through the crowded hallway. Now I am catching up to her, touching her for the first time, touching her shoulder. She turns to me and she is crying. All around us are clumsy teenagers. Lockers are opening and then being slammed shut.
“What is wrong?” I ask.
“Wrong?” she says, brushing over her eyes with the back of her hand, “Nothing is wrong. I’m just happy.” Then she kisses me quickly, turns again, and nearly runs into her next class just as the bell is ringing.
I go outside. I go to those woods. Two hours sitting there until the final bell. Then I find her as she leaves the building. We walk back to her house together. She touches my hand. I touch hers. Our shoulders brush. Our hands touch again. She takes my hand. She holds it. I hold her hand. She holds my hand. She drops her books, and I don’t understand. Then her arms are around me. My arms are at my sides. Then my arms are around her. We are laughing together.
I remember her bones. The bones under her skin. I remember her blood moving in her veins. I hear her breathing as she sleeps, me next to her. I am hiding with her in her room, waiting until her parents also go to asleep so I can leave her house quietly. I am running in the East Coast springtime along the concrete streets, with more happiness and more sorrow than any child should ever carry. We only had two months together. I have finally been kicked out of school, and she has told me what is wrong with her. By then I understand her frailty. By then I have told her everything about myself, and I have realized that without her I will be like dust.
I wanted to show her the forest places. I wanted to take her with me to the deepest parts of the West. She is sitting cross-legged on the grass in front of her house. It is early summer now, night. I have been working on a construction site. I come to her house every evening. I eat with her family. I am no longer so shy. But this day I did not come by until very late. She has told me things I could not understand, that have frightened me so much that the only thing I know how to do is to try to runaway again.
You see, we were both so alone. That last night, that summer night, I ran to her house at three in the morning and threw small stones at the window. When she woke and looked down at me she smiled, opened the window, and asked, “What are you doing?” I told her that I had to talk, that I could not sleep. She dressed and came outside. We sat on the grass, there next to the house, and I said that I was going to Montana and asked her again to come with me. Dark, with fireflies, and that Maryland humidity that made my shirt stick to my back, we sat together, quiet, and I waited for an answer, but it never came. Instead she said she had to go back inside, and I walked her to the front door. She kissed me suddenly, her hand holding tightly to mine, then slipping away as she turned and opened the door. Inside her father was in the near dark, sitting by a dim lamp. I remember how he looked at me and how he waved, but the door was closed before any of us could say anything.
Were I went was again a hard place. I sent her letters I wrote during lunch-breaks in the string of labor jobs I ended up with. I sent her letters until one came back, a little less than a year after I had left, but it wasn’t from her. It was a short note from her father, folded only once, telling me that I should not keep writing her since she was gone.
These silent years, these moods… I am in the clouds now, writing while on route to another passionless business meeting. Out this small window there is a halo of light, the Glory rainbow that physicists tell us is caused by ice crystals, but which my heart tells me is her bright memory. If I could, I would go back to where we first met – that classroom – and I would hand her a carefully folded, carefully written note, with just these words, “I will stay.”
I left home without finishing school and she tried to finish but also did not make it. “Come with me,” I said that night, “We will find clear rivers and forests and always be with each other.” I said to her, “Come with me and you will be fine again. Doctors know nothing, come with me because we have so little time.” Fool I was, coward too, because I left her alone when she should not have been alone.
I imagine her father holding her. I imagine him crying for all of us; her trapped in this place of rock and air, breathing out one last time, while I swung and sweated on some highway crew, pretending that at eighteen my body could work a magic that would reach two thousand miles back to hers and pull the illness from the bones.
I still look for her everywhere. In the city crowds I sometimes see a face like hers, or, walking in a certain way, a girl with long, thin arms…. But I find her most in solitary places: along the Blackfoot river in Autumn, a place she never saw, where red river rocks sparkle in the low water and dark trout pretend to be shadows.
I write these words with the same hand that wrote for her, the same hand that she held and touched that last moment as I was leaving, a door closing forever. Up here, in these clouds, five miles from anything solid, I beg a forgiveness and wonder who I would have become if I had different strength and had stayed with her to say goodbye. Some mistakes last forever, and we try forever to make up for them. The “success” that becomes our surface is only the thinnest of covers over deep, deep failure.