She’s talking to that guy again, and I’m nearby, watching her. One of her feet are pointed to the ground, and she twirls upon the toes like a ballerina, taking his hand in hers and swinging it as if to skip rope with him. My friend is talking to me, but I am not listening. I am watching them both as they stand on the street corner. I am trying to chase the words from her lips. Like each one is some note written for me to listen to, to harmonize with. He stands there, taller than her, looking down on her and he is smiling as I smiled with her. Take her then. Take my place. I have gotten used to losing more and more each day. What is one more sledgehammer to my skull?
‘Are you listening to me?’ Jon asks me.
They are walking away, hand in hand, and she is still swinging their arms like they aim to break into dance. Well go on then you white shirt cigarettes tucked into the sleeve mother-fucker. Go on. Take her with you. Just know you take a piece of me. The shard that broke off between her ribs. It’ll be there, cutting deep into her lungs, trying ever so hard to reach her heart and you’ll be standing opposite trying to pull it out. Know that I am still in there. You can’t love her without loving the part that loved me.
‘Dude.’ Jon is trying hard now. He is seeing my eyes squint, my teeth grit. He sees my fists clench. ‘Lawrence.’
‘Come on, man. Let’s get drunk.’
We get into Jon’s truck and we head to the liquor store. His dad is out back and he gives us a crate and we lift it into the back. We say our thanks and Jon turns on the engine and we drive off, following the road into the valley’s basin. The road snakes along the basin like some grey river. We see other vehicles only after long stretches of time. The valley is almost a figment. The town, a ghost, and I, a spirit, like Jon, who sits next to me. I think soon, the truck’s wheels should lift, and we will push ourselves into those white clouds above us, and we’ll look down and we’ll see the expanse. We’ll see how it all meanders, turns on itself, eats itself and it all begins again.
‘Where you want to go?’ he asks me.
‘Just drive, man.’ I open a bottle on the bottle opener, wedged into the dashboard. ‘You want one?’
‘Yeah.’ I hand him the bottle and open another for myself. We take big swigs. He downs his in one go and throws it out the window. The bottle smashes against the asphalt in one quick shatter.
‘That guy’s an asshole,’ he says.
‘Yeah well she’s got a taste for em.’
I punch his shoulder hard, the truck swerves and Jon straightens it out. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘You’re not an asshole,’ he says.
‘You’re full of shit.’
‘She’s the asshole.’
‘No,’ I say, looking out the passenger window at the tree-line marching past. ‘No, she’s not.’
We drive past the dead forest. People went and killed themselves out here – this side of the valley. My father told me never to go into it, but me and Jon do almost every time we’re in the area. We’ve never found any bodies. They say the government came in and took all those ribbons down left over and took all those mementos and bodies and skeletons. Sometimes I wake in the morning and feel like I should be waking to the canopy of the forest above me. Like that’s where I belong. But everyday it’s the ceiling fan of my room. It used to be the ceiling fan of hers too.
None of us ever have the courage to stay in the forest overnight. Even on the hottest days it has this weird dampness to it. This humidity so thick and clingy. And at night it cools to a temperature below comfortable. I would think camping there would be like preparing for two seasons. I asked Jon once if he was interested but he shook his head and had this pale look to his face. Even when we had a few beers in, something gripped us about that forest. How the roots all lay upon each other like a tangled mess. How the barks lean against one another. How the brush upon the wet soil rustles like tin foil.
Jon stops the truck and we get out and I grab the crate of beer from the back. He drives, I carry, that’s always been the deal. I put the crate down, grab another beer and open it, so I can drink and carry at the same time. Jon is annoyed I didn’t ask if he wanted one. He never asks for one. He waits for someone to offer. He says it’s a moral thing to do. I don’t ask if he wants a beer just to see that annoyed reaction – to see how close to his principles he can stick to. We head into the nearby tree-line and walk through, between the barks, the incessant cicadas clicking, the birds chattering, squawking at our presence. We don’t talk to one another. We never do until we reach our clearing. We had found these three stumps, like three corners of a triangle, some ways into the forest. The three of us would sit there, talking to one another about whatever is on our minds and we’d get drunk and get drunker until we wanted to get even drunker. I would sit on one stump. Jon on the other. She would sit on the last. She would sit there with her hands clasping one another between her legs that she pressed together. She would sit there and talk with us about her family and how her daddy beats her mom. She would talk to us about how the trees made her feel, about how the beer made her feel – not drunk but distracted, compressed and composed. And then when the sun would sink, she would ask to sit with me on my stump and I would try to keep her warm while it was Jon’s turn to talk about his wants, his dreams. How his father should stop giving him beer so he could stop accepting it. We ask him why and he says his father just wants him to be happy.
And when they ask of me. I say I don’t want to talk about things like that. I’d rather listen.
Now it is just me and Jon and an empty stump. We are drinking in silence. I know I am that silence. It is not Jon, and it never was her either. Her name was Jane and it was never her. Jon looks at me between gulps until his beer is done and he throws it into the forest and picks up another and opens it.
‘I didn’t offer you one,’ I say.
‘You aren’t drinking fast enough, I’m getting bored.’
‘I am drinking.’
‘Not fast enough,’ he takes another bottle to its bottom and throws it away into the forest.
‘Maybe you’re drinking too fast.’
‘You are just slow,’ he says and takes another and opens it. This time he sips it and burps, the other two still dwelling in his system. ‘You are slow. Like with everything.’
I look at him and he looks angry. The shadows of the leaves pattern his sunburnt skin.
‘What do you mean with that?’
‘No, fuck you. You don’t say something like that and then not tell me what you mean by it.’
I huff and turn on my stump, kicking at some leaves next to it. I hear him chuckle like an asshole.
‘What is it?’ I say.
‘You ever think that you’re the only one in the world who understands you?’ he says.
‘All the time,’ I say, smiling.
‘That’s your fuckin problem,’ he says through his teeth, standing. He drains his bottle and throws it into the forest. ‘Let’s go home.’
He is walking away, back in the direction of the truck.
‘Alright,’ I say.