January 4, 2011
I always heard violins. When we sat on the porch, or ran in the rain, or made a fort in the back forty, they were there, in the background, almost haunting. If I strained to listen too long they sent shivers up my arms, and all of my hair stood on end.
You hear them? You’d ask me, grinning your gap-toothed grin.
Yeah, I’d tell you.
Then you would laugh. Ignore them. They don’t matter. You were so certain, so sure, I almost could have sworn you were right. There was something inside of me, deep in my gut, that kept me from agreeing. A dark mass, sucking some of the assurance out of me. I ignored it, like you said, and we kept digging in the dirt, looking for worms, maybe, or a snail’s shell.
They never left—at least, they never left while you were there. But I didn’t always listen, when you stared at me from behind your big glasses. I was fine and they faded into the background when we chased imaginary beings through the underbrush.
Maybe I should have listened, after all.
We were the perfect pair: I can still remember. You, with your tousled brown hair that never laid the way you wanted it to. You were vain, always playing with it, but no matter how self-absorbed, you wouldn’t let go of those huge glasses that you had. I told you they made you look like a bug, but you just sniffed at me. Get out, Lilian, you said. You never called me Lily, like other kids.
I thought that was special.
I was scrawny, with limp hair the indefinable color of sand. My wide eyes watched you like those people must have watched Jesus, taking in everything about you: the freckle on your right ear, the gap between your teeth. Everything about you, I watched, I craved, I memorized.
Our neighborhood was small, and we were the only kids. It was always wet and dismal out, but we didn’t notice: you were so marvelously brilliant about everything, and I was so perfectly adoring and accepting. We rode by the old folks, reaching out to touch their mailboxes as we whirred by on out bicycles, waving and calling each of them by name.
I still remember that time you bought me the ice cream. We were riding, zooming, with the world but wonderfully above it, beyond it. We were soaring.
But I had to come down. I wasn’t as good as you, not ever. I had just pulled my hands from the handlebars, mimicking you in all of your adroit majesty, and then I was tumbling. The bike collapsed, and I was falling, falling.
I screamed as I skidded across the pavement. My hands were tearing, the skin flaking off onto the hard, unforgiving ground, my knees catching fire from the momentum. The bike was under me, around me, somehow. My ankle hurt.
I looked up, already sobbing, but you hadn’t even noticed. You rode, your hands limp at your sides, whistling to a bird, tunelessly. The violins got louder.
Stephen! I called, tears rolling down my cheeks. My hands burned, stung, ached. I wanted to stop the pain, but I couldn’t move.
A moment passed. Your hands went slowly back up to your handles.
For a moment, I didn’t think you would turn around.
But you did: I watched you as you calmly angled your bike to face me, breaking that eternal forsaken moment. You looked surprised, but only mildly.
I looked at the tiny shards of gravel embedded in the pink layers of my skin.
You pulled the bike off of me. Well, get up, you said. You weren’t even looking at me. You were watching the sun, somewhere beyond the murky clouds.
I looked up at you, and you looked back down at me. My eyes, red rimmed; my hands, my knees, my ankle, the pain. I couldn’t see your eyes from behind the reflection of grey pavement in your glasses.
I’m hurt, I told you. More tears slid down my cheeks, reflecting the world as though they were incredibly interested in everything it had to offer them. They hit the pavement like I did, without witnesses.
I know. Don’t cry. You extended a hand to help me when I didn’t move, but I just stared at you.
Get up, you repeated.
I struggled to stand. Moving caused sheets of pain to flash across my knees, but I stood. My ankle wanted to give out beneath me, but I stood. The violins were ascending now, louder and louder. I tried not to panic. Didn’t you care?
We walked off of the road, you pushing my bike. Yours stood, solitary, in the middle of the farm road. Only its kickstand kept it from falling. I can’t help but think it looked incredibly lonely.
You went back and pulled it into the grass, where I stood, crying.
Stop crying, you told me, unfeeling.
I coughed, trying.
It was then you grinned. You grinned at me, like I wasn’t hurt, like I wasn’t weeping. Want some ice cream? You thumbed towards the road. Above the violins I heard the oblivious sound of the ice cream truck.
You walked out right into the middle of the road and waved him down. He was on his way home, away from town, having already gone on his rounds. We knew that. We knew him on a first name basis, but I can’t remember what it is now.
I don’t remember his face, either.
You ordered us two of the blue popsicles, the vanilla. Each a dime. You didn’t ask me what I wanted. I suppose if you had, I would have gotten what you liked anyway.
We sat on the side of the road, on an old concrete block a farmer dropped there maybe centuries before. I licked my popsicle as I hiccupped, struggling to keep my tears away by your bidding. Yours hung by your hand and melted.
We were eight.
Once my popsicle was gone, you admitted something to me. You stared across the road, off towards the horizon, where the yellow tops of corn met the grey haze of the sky. I don’t like it when people cry, you told me.
It seems insignificant now.
I sat and thought, watching the vanilla-blue popsicle die in your hands. The concrete was hard beneath my skirt. I swore, inside of myself, that I would never cry in front of you again. The violins started to fade.
We went home, each to our own houses. Yours was the blue, with the picket fence, and mine was the color we always debated about. You swore it was yellow, but I was sure it was white.
It must have been the only thing we disagreed on.
My memories of you are summer. School didn’t exist for me: it was empty space until I saw you again in those afternoons.
The summer a few years after that was the important one.
We were playing Robin Hood. We just ducked behind a fallen log in the woods on the other side of town. We could see our bikes, just beyond where King John’s men were sure to be searching for us.
I pulled myself down from looking over our bark-covered cave. Maybe it was a hole. I can’t remember. I looked at you, and you were staring at me. The world of Robin Hood dissolved around us like snow.
The violins rose to the foreground.
What? I asked you.
I’m eleven, you told me.
I know, I reminded you. So am I.
Just like that. A bomb was dropped, like the one on Hiroshima a year before we were born. I was blown, full-force, out of my perfect world. I was hurtling through the unknown. Everything stopped, except for me, rocketing through time and space like a meteor to its final end.
My voice was detached. I could hardly hear for the violins.
Tomorrow, you said.
Then your hands were in my hair, and our lips were together, and you were kissing me, and we were on the big screens we would spend our nickels and dimes to go see every week, and there was such a thing as magic, and the world dissolved around me, and nothing mattered any more. The only things that mattered were you and the violins.
The only things were you and the violins.
I collapsed, and you fell with me, into the leaves. We lay there, staring up at the world past the leafy branches of the trees. Your arm was under my head, and I was aware, aware of everything. I was aware you had just taken something incredibly special from me, but I didn’t care. It was you. You were there, and the violins.
I imagined that the sun was shining.
We didn’t say anything else. Words were nothing to us. The violins would never fade. I felt so much.
I don’t remember you telling me that you didn’t want me to know you were moving because you didn’t want to worry me, or that you kissed me because you loved me, because you wanted to. I don’t remember you saying goodbye, or that you would miss me, or where you were going. I don’t remember getting up. I don’t remember movement.
I remember waving to you as you peered from behind your glasses the next day, behind the glass in the back windshield of your family’s station wagon as you left me. You took the violins with you.
I was fine, for years. The violins were quiet, and I was all right. I remembered that day often. I remembered how you didn’t ever say goodbye. It must have been a sign.
Stephen’s moving back.
I wasn’t surprised when I heard the rumors when we were in high school. I wasn’t surprised when they were true. I wasn’t surprised when I heard they finally did move you up a year, like they said they would for years.
I went with the rest of them to welcome you back. I stood at the edge of them. I had grown a little taller, and my hair was longer. I had little intellectual glasses I convinced the doctor I couldn’t read in order to receive. They reminded me a little of you. I was out of the fashion trends.
Most of me waited for a little boy with messy brown hair to meander out of the doorway, to stick his tongue out at the crowd and dash out of view behind the house, and I would follow you. You might kiss me again. I hoped so.
The other part of me wasn’t surprised when everything I had ever dreamed of stepped out of that door.
You were tall, and your brown hair lay perfectly. You didn’t have glasses on any more, and your scrawny figure had grown into that of a strong young man.
We were seventeen.
I was smitten. Violins started to play, faintly, somewhere behind my eyes.
You greeted them, and when I stepped up, you grinned at me.
Hi, you told me.
Hi. I was as timid as a dormouse, not wanting to spoil our friendship by acting exuberant in front of them—any of them. I was quiet and reserved.
You moved on.
I watched you from then on, like I did when we were eight, when we were eleven. My eyes never left you. I sat behind you in school, watching, pensive, instead of interacting with the other kids.
You didn’t notice me.
After school, you were always surrounded. I couldn’t get to you because of them. Tomorrow, I told myself every day, standing by your locker as the group followed you away from me. Tomorrow I can talk to him. Just him and I.
I tried to ignore the violins like you told me to.
Some of them organized a hike on a weekend. I heard you were going. I asked the girl I sat behind if I could come along as well. She didn’t know my name. She said all right.
I walked in the back for most of the hike, watching you as we meandered through the woods, around all of our old haunts. I watched to see if you recognized anything, if you stopped to pause by a tree or a rock. I heard someone say we were halfway done, and I mustered all of the courage within me.
Can I talk to you? I asked you, ignoring them all.
Sure, you said.
We dropped to walk behind all of the others. You watched them laughing in front of us, and smiled.
What did you want? You turned your radiant smile upon me. The gap in between your teeth was miraculously gone.
I haven’t seen you for a long time, I told you.
I haven’t been here in a long time, you said, like I didn’t know.
We walked in silence for a while, and I looked up to the sky, where the sun was shining beyond the leaves. The violins played.
Well, if you don’t have a question, you started, Why don’t I ask you one?
I shrugged, waiting for you to ask if you could kiss me again. I would have said yes.
What’s your name?
I looked up at you. Without your glasses to hide behind, I could see your eyes. You looked sincere, but your crooked smile convinced me otherwise. I knew you were teasing me.
Lilian, I reminded you.
We walked on. I think we talked, but I can only remember the violins.
The hike descended into the ravine, where we used to play as children. I waited for you to drop the joke, for you to stop and point out somewhere where we played a game, or where we used to swim. You didn’t, so I kept waiting.
You were called away by some of them. I didn’t know their names, but you did. You went ahead, and I told you it was all right, like you asked me.
I watched you walk with them until you were out of sight, around a bend in the dried-up creek. I watched the distant rocks before me, noting that even though they looked old, they were younger than they had been when we were children.
Maybe when you age, everything just seems younger to you.
I was trying to think. I was sure it was you. You seemed so different, but I was sure it was you.
You looked different, and you sounded different, and you had no glasses. You had the same name as the boy who bought me ice cream years before, but my assurance was fading, along with the violins.
I began to wonder if I wanted them to stay, their eerie, haunting sound filling my being like they used to.
I wasn’t paying attention, straining to listen to violins, and I was off guard when I started to fall. There was an incline, and I tumbled, down, down, down. I hit my head, and cut my arm, but I was all right until I stopped. There was a rock, on me, around me, somehow, and my ankle was beneath it, pinned to the ground.
I screamed. Blood trickled from the gash in my arm, and a splitting pain erupted in my scalp, and my whole leg was fire, pure fire.
You came around the corner (or was it you?) and I felt the tears trickling down my face. One of the boys closest to me pulled me from the rocks. My ankle felt as though it was exploding. He knelt down, asked me if I was all right, if I could walk. Others moved in to fill the space around me, but I just stared at you, who I was trying to determine you were. Someone moved in between us, and I still stared, unseeing.
I heard you, and they parted again. I looked up, eyes red-rimmed, and you looked down at me. Your eyes were unreadable.
I broke my ankle, I choked out, sobbing.
Stop, you told me again.
I coughed, trying.
You didn’t look away from me. I don’t like it when people cry, you informed me.
I blinked, and a few tears trickled down my cheeks, the last of them. The others stared at you, bewildered. I wasn’t. I finally knew it was you. I felt like I had been found, as though I was the one who had been lost, not you.
Are you all right? You asked me.
And you’re sure your ankle is broken?
I nodded again.
You came over, and in an instant I was in your arms. I started to protest, but you just looked down at me and smiled.
I’ve got it.
So I let you carry me. You held me, and as you made your way through the woods, over hills, around trees, I was reminded of how your arm felt beneath my head that day that you didn’t say goodbye. I leaned against you, and you felt strong. I could ignore the pain, because you asked me to.
All of my hair stood on end.
I hear them, I whispered, closing my eyes.
You looked down at me.
I hear the violins.
The next words were impossible.
My world was made of glass and memories, and all of them crashed into a broken dust about me. You didn’t know. You honestly had no idea. What violins?
You are the violins.
That dark hole inside of me, the one that I ignored as long as you asked me to, sucked the life out of me. I was lost, so far lost I couldn’t feel anything. I fell, away from you, away from my body, away from reality. What violins?
How could you ever ask such a question?
I was silent. You had been everything to me. I tucked my head against your chest and kept myself from weeping.
I would not cry in front of you.
Someone got to the end of the trail before us. An ambulance was already there, and you got in with me. Go away, I wanted to tell you. I wanted to sear you with my words. I wanted you to die. Go away.
Instead, you were there, and fine, and smiling that same smile you had when you bought me the ice cream. Smiling your selfish smile.
What violins? You asked me again.
We used to live next door to each other, I told you. We were best friends. You bought me ice cream. We knew his name. We went to movies together. When we were together, I heard violins. You understood. We weren’t ever apart.
I don’t remember, you said, oblivious.
You kissed me, I told you.
It was a long time ago, you excused.
We were one person, I told you.
People grow apart, you shrugged.
“No. People don’t grow apart, not like that. Don’t tell me that people grow apart. We were in love. We were perfect. People don’t grow apart. One of them just chooses to forget.
“Why did you choose to forget?”
The violins finally stopped.