“Tell me,” he says, “what the rest of your day looks like.” It’s the early afternoon and we’re together. It’s sunny outside. It’s always bright when we’re together. I’ve prayed for us to have a cloudy day. I’ve dreamed of dark skies and loud rain. There have been a couple of close calls, but the summer sun is defiant and bright each time I clap eyes on him. His peeling arms and my peeling shoulders proof of just how bright it’s been.
“I have to write ‘Crushed’,” I say. I wish I could explain to him exactly what it feels like to sit down and write, the satisfaction, the way the time snaps past. I feel like he’d know just what I mean. He tends to know. If he didn’t, I could hear myself saying that it’s the exact same feeling as unknotting a necklace. The same as that moment when you separate the final tight loop of cheap metallic chain and the circle falls back into place. It feels like a silly thing to say for no reason, and artsy-fartsy besides, so I don’t.
Instead I just look at him. I look at him the same way he is looking at me, with an artist’s concentration, wary of missing a detail. We are looking like we’re memorizing each other’s faces and our time to do so is finite. It makes me unspeakably sad.
“Who are you writing about this week?” He’s on his side and he’s watching me with one eye closed and pressed into the pillow and the other eye open, soft, curious, dark, and adoring.
You, I want to say, I’m writing about you. Every single time I write about anyone else it’s about you. That’s what this is, after all: A love letter. It’s all one strange, twisting, navel-gazing, long-winded way of showing you that in this life you are it for me.
But I don’t say that.
Instead? I stretch out and study the ceiling. “Well,” I say, my own one open eye darting to his and back away from it quickly, “It’s chronological, so we’ve reached fifth grade.”
I think about fifth grade briefly, just a flash. The newest wing of the elementary school, us the first fifth grade class to attend the school, how everything smelled like paint, how the walls were always chilly to the touch, how we ran in the grassy lot behind the building, rolling down the hill there. Amazing how none of us stepped on broken glass or found a hypodermic needle. There were always condoms slick and sad on the ground but by then we all knew better than to touch them. I think of how we had lockers for the first time, how I never could remember my combination. I think of how old I was then. Just ten, double digits, exciting times.
Inches from my own face and quiet he is lying beside me. He’s wearing two T-shirts. He’s wearing his hat. When I was that age back then he was older. But I am imagining him in another place being ten years old. I am picturing him; a skinny kid, quiet and hiding behind hair or a baseball cap.
I am picturing him a world away from me.
Remember when I was ten, I want to say to him, remember all that time where I didn’t know you, didn’t know that I ever would? I always thought I’d be able to tell you the name of every boy I loved from every year. The truth is, I don’t remember who it was in fifth grade. I remember other things. I started wearing a bra, I was obsessed with my teacher, Mr. Burt, and his hair which I was sure could not be real. We had a class pet. He was a gerbil named Sport. At the end of the year, I was selected to take him home for the summer and care for him. He had a ball that he could walk around the house in.
Our dog Hillary was quietly entranced with him, this perfect beige morsel. She would follow his ball all around the first floor. She would stare at the glass tank he lived in for hours. I still have a photo of this somewhere, her staring into the glass, begging for him to come to his senses. Realize your fate, her goofy gaze said in an attempt to mesmerize the rodent. Jump into my mouth so that I might finish you off in one or two toothy snaps of my strong jaws.
It’s no small wonder that the animal died. He made it through most of the summer, but, in the few weeks just before Mr. Burt was due to come and scoop Sport back up for another exciting year of pre-adolescent torpor, I found him dead in his cage. His body looked stiff and airy, on his back in the cedar chips. His eyes were closed, his mouth open. With his top teeth out at that angle he looked terribly ugly and I felt a wash of revulsion pour over me. I felt immediately terrible about this. I was shocked that I could be so dispassionate, that in the face of death I could become so tearless and clinical. I’m not a good person, I thought. I’m a bad person.
When Mr. Burt came to pick up Sport, my mom let me go to the bookstore with my dad. I walked through the aisles and imagined what my former teacher would think of me. I imagine his polite smile falling when my mom told him about the passing of the class pet. I was sure he would think it was my fault. I was sure he would know that twinge of distaste I felt upon discovering Sport’s dead body. I could picture him driving home with the tank in his backseat. I imagined him scowling at my mother, “Your daughter,” he’d hiss, “is not a good person.” My stomach lurched. Mr. Burt was never angry at me. I was a good kid. He was nice enough, but strange in a way that invited a sort of crude and teasing appraisal of his person by us, his astute pupils.
I felt, in a way, that he wore the mask of a patient man and beneath it was something else. That’s probably true. He was teaching fifth grade, after all.
I got home and the tank was gone. I probed my mom for details about the encounter with my former teacher. I wanted the clearest possible picture. I wanted to know that he thought of me exactly I was sure he did. I wanted the truth. My mother was kindly vague. I don’t remember what I did after she and I spoke. I probably went upstairs, slumped in front of the T.V. and glazed over whatever was on to worry about my bad and rotten insides, maybe with one hand down my pants if I was alone. You’re bad, Becca, you’re bad. That voice, not the first time I heard it.
I finish telling this story. I unloop that final tight metallic coil. I am in my bed and it is dark and he is gone. Next week middle school starts and I feel appropriately wretched about it.