Even though I’ve never touched that one saving touch to grasp in this existence, I’ll never stop reaching out. I’ll extend my inky hand into the darkness, ever hoping you’ll feel it to pull me into the sure embrace I’ve faith awaits me. I’ll never stop reaching, just as you’ve never stopped reaching out to me. If we are to go under it won’t be beneath words I’ve carelessly spilled, or choking on loss and loneliness. I know those rebellious lines have brought us close, and it’s shared loss and loneliness that'll always lash us together. Just not side-by-side.
The last time I saw your face, I couldn’t see it all. It wasn’t that you were in profile, or lowered your chin in sadness, though sadness stalks your eyes too often, just waiting there for a sag of your shoulder to pounce. No, the last time I saw your face we wore masks for Christmas, perhaps to see New the Year, perhaps to see one another again at all. But I know the last time I saw your face, your eyes told me a smile was crossing its Tropic of Capricorn, since I’d come back safe from my own Tropic of Cancer. And I held your face close, its Equator to mine, our cheeks at anchor for a long moment, because what if this really was to be the last time I saw your face?
I know it’s never been a race, but I only know what it’s not. You’ve already passed me by twice; don’t know how many more laps I’ve got. I’ve given up trying to catch up as we’ve always run round and round. Our strides so evenly match up, but yours are swift, while mine pound. As along I plodded, I’ve pondered all the laps we could have shared, if out of my lane I wandered, if only I’d sped up and dared. I’m nearing the end of my run, and I just can’t catch up to you. Since we don’t know when we’ll be done, here is what I thought we could do. I’ll never get back my old zest, catching up I won’t even try. So I’ll wait here and rest and jump back in as you go by. And as I did, you turned and said, “Thanks for waiting ‘til I caught you.” Seems I was the one laps ahead, now we'll finish as we ought to. I think it’s seamlessly ironic, knowing how I get bogged down in my real life and the hundreds of lives banging around in my head, that I’m a day late in finishing this poem. The prompt was to write a “Catch up” poem. Indeed.
I think it might be lavender mixed with a little lemon zest. The memory of how you smell still lingers in me. Who’d have guessed? Perhaps you. Certainly not I, my memories now are hidden. I think I lost them in the dust of the desert years I’ve ridden. All by myself, but not alone, Imagination rode there, too. A third shadow sometimes appeared, so suspiciously shaped like you. When it cast itself on the sand the desert would begin to bloom. Instead of the dust and dried sage, the air was filled with your perfume. At least that’s what I could recall as each sundown you rode away. Even sleep would leave me alone all night as I daydreamed you’d stay. Now I’m old, and rely upon your grace for any second chance to leave loneliness just once more, and between us its vast expanse. That’s all I ask, just to get close, close enough to finally see if lavender and lemon were what you wore, or hopeful fantasy. Since I’m a day behind, I combined two prompts today -- a second chance poem and one using the sense of smell.
The tracks they all leave criss-cross and follow, stretch and tangle and some just up and disappear as if their signatories ascended in some great leap to that better place. And so with us on our journey between unknown and known, confused and understood, apathy and love, love and some other kind of love. Maybe the tracks form at the corners of our eyes, where tears can pool or joy marks its trail so as not to get lost again. Or perhaps they step one into the other’s so that it looks like we’re walking alone again. But that would mean one following the other and wouldn’t it be better if, for at least the part before one set finally disappears, our steps walk side by side?
When the lights go out, will it be like all those nights I spent in the dark wondering? Only not wondering anymore? When all is revealed, will it not have been worth my asking over all these years? Though I finally guessed the answer. When the time comes, will you mourn the days, the hours, the minutes we could have, probably should have? Don’t answer that until then. When I’m not there to reply, will you ask yourself why you couldn't answer the question never asked? Probably as afraid of it as I was. And when the words finally stop, will anyone but you notice the echo in the empty spaces between the lines? It was the wonder, the revelation, the answer, the syllables surpassing all others when the sun shone upon us, the candle would dim and flicker between us… and the lights finally went out for good before we were ready.
Wishes are the foundation of my life, so many, like grains of sand on a beach. The truth of this story cuts like a knife, they never came true, ever out of reach. Anything you build on a bed of sand will always topple in the wind or surf. Don’t matter if your life's wish-castle’s grand, it’ll fall as if built on clouds above earth. So I stopped wishing when you went away, and my sturdy life became earthbound. I never figured you’d be back one day, but now here you are and here’s what I found. Those wishes like sand made by younger me didn’t really fit when I got older. Except this one that's mostly come true, you see -- the wish-castle I built on this boulder.
They tell me that the most powerful of the senses in terms of stimulating memories is smell. I believe that’s true, since my hearing went the way of my youth years ago.
And now my memory’s hard of hearing, too.
When even your memory loses its power to hear, let me tell you, you’ve got a problem. Or at least I do.
There are a few reasons I can’t hear anymore.
One, I’m old. Retired from the news business, the newsPAPER one where everyone read your work product behind their coffee each morning.
Two, I spent a lot of time listening to music in headphones while I worked. Turned up to 11, as they say. Plus, I spent a lot of time in the paper’s back shops watching — and, I suppose, listening — to the news being rendered onto erstwhile forests between the rollers of great mechanical transcribers of inky truth.
And three, I could never hear very well to begin with. Hence, the aforementioned headphone volume, which now I turn up to 15 or so via Bluetooth and electronic hearing aid magic as it shouts into the semi-useless holes where Bose headphones once howled.
And what does all this info dump have to do with scenting a memory?
Because I can’t remember Nicole’s voice.
I told you my memory’s lost its hearing, too.
Sure, I can sit on a mountain and look down onto a forest that missed out on feeding the news machines back in the Seventies and hear the wind strum the pines and the birds chant their matins in real time through my hearing aids. But even if I couldn’t, I can “hear” the music of Nature on some recording that I pump from my phone through these $4,000 miracles sitting in my ears. So even if I forgot the difference between a tweeting titmouse and a babbling brook, science can make the connection for me.
But recalling the timbre and music I found in the voice of the love of my almost-silent and forgetful life? That I can’t pull from some crusty fold in my gray matter. And I have to. I need to hear her tell my imagination I’ll be okay when that door opens and the light in the next room plays our song and I click my heels (I can hear that now) and say “There’s no place like home.”
And if home is where the heart is, then my next home will be with Nicole, because that’s where my heart’s been for thirty years.
Right now, when I think of her, I can see her pretty face, feel her warmth breath against my ear. But when she speaks to me, all I can hear is some generic placeholder of human sound. An Alexa or Siri voice that’s nowhere near as pretty as that face or warm as the life she breathed into me. I need that or my way out of this life will be as sad and silent as her grave.
We met on the job, both of us spoken for at the time, but we almost immediately found our voices stimulating some kind of vibration only we could perceive. I would say we were tuned to our own frequency, upon which sentences would abruptly stop somewhere before the next necessary inhalation, but the message would continue and be understood.
“Hey, do you want to…” I’d whisper behind her as she typed away at her desk.
She’d cut me off and whisper back, “No, but how ‘bout we…”
“Yeah, I like it there. Good i…,”
“I thought you would,” she’d say, smile that smile, and then get up and head back to the shop to check out some galleys for Thursday’s edition.
The print shop is where Nicole told me she was leaving. At first, I didn’t understand, the printers’ smudging her voice like her tears smudged her mascara. She pulled me close and placed her mouth right next to my ear and told me how she had to go, since her husband had been transferred.
The newspaper had already found her a position, a promotion no less, at their sister publication in the same city where her husband was going.
Then she kissed me, said, “I’ll talk to you later,” and hustled out to the office. Our city editor made the announcement right after that, pulled out a bottle of sparkling something and everyone toasted to her success. Except me. I stayed in the print shop trying to pull my stomach off the floor.
When I left the shop, she’d already gone. My cubicle-mate pointed to my face and asked what the black stuff was on my cheek. I knew, but I told him it was ink from the shop.
I never heard Nicole’s voice again. Not in person, nor on the phone. I received a bunch of letters, which became emails and then some Christmas and birthday cards and then nothing.
Her obit ran four years ago. No one at the paper by now knew who she was. I didn’t exactly know whose face it was in the photo the company ran with her story. The toll of those quiet years and the onset of my dementia, I guess. She probably wouldn’t recognize me either.
But I have old photos and some sweet selective memories where she’s as near perfect as my imagination chooses to remember. But I don’t have her voice.
Couple of months ago, I pulled a bottle of bubbly something from the fridge and filled a glass to toast Nicole like I never did the first time she left me behind. And as I watched those bubbles rise and (I assume) fizz and pop at the wine’s surface, the idea came to me.
The aroma of the wine reminded me of the night she left. And I thought maybe there was something else that might remind me of the sound of her voice.
So I stole my daughter’s Mazda (don’t tell her) and drove out to the old-timey Linotype printshop on Route 7. It’s run by the son of our old shop foreman. I introduced myself and told him I was writing a story about the old days and hoped I might take a few photos of his presses as a bit of inspiration.
He agreed and walked me into his back shop where I stopped cold.
“You all right, Bud?” he asked with the look of a guy who didn’t need some old reporter dropping dead in his place of business.
“Oh, sure. It’s just that I haven’t smelled something like this, heard that, in a couple of decades.”
“Yeah, that ink smell can get to some folks. I can see how it’s getting to you, too. Let’s grab a couple of pix and get you out of here, Bud.”
“I appreciate it, son. Could you get me a cup of water over there?” I choked out.
So I have those photos and a decent memory of the sound of a roaring press. But every night I can hear Nicole again whenever I pull out and take a deep sniff of the cleaning rag, still full of ink and oil, that I snuck into my pocket while that young fella was at the water cooler.
“I can’t believe you really…”
“Yes, Nicole, if I ever was going to hear your voice again, I had…”
“Okay, Bud. Did you see…?”
“Oh, that is quite a bright…”
“It’ll be all right. Been waiting for…”
After a lot of sputters, stops and no starts, I sat down with no expectations and tackled the prompt of Hearing in Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses. program. Had to use that photo up there, as well as two other. And, so lie me, my Hearing story hinged on the sense of Smell. This is a first-draft hope and a prayer. But it’s a thing where nothing was before.
I don’t wish to be dark, since all I want from life is to bring you light. Light to shine like joy upon you and me. But I know I can’t hand you a ray of sunshine, like a celestial flower, just as you can’t chase away my dark ennui. And I don’t know if you’d even accept it if I offered. Maybe because you know what I know about life and light. How whenever each has shone upon us, neither of them has come cheaply. And nothing’s ever come to us without a fight. So while I don’t want to bring you more darkness, we both know shadow’s the price we pay for the gift of light from above. The shadow light casts when something or someone stands between us and some someday’s bright shining love. So I will never stand in the way of the light you need and deserve. Just as I hope you’ll never block mine. For that we must stand side by side, letting the light have us full, and leaving our lives’ shadows behind.
She asked me what it was like to live up there where it got Winter early and Spring so late. I had to sit for a second to remember. Even though remembering’s almost all we old guys do. Mostly what I recalled was the heat on my face and the chill on my back, like when I would chase the sirens and lights to those trailer fires, where someone’s whole life, and few lives themselves, would go up in a smoke so stinking it clings to my memory harder than it clung to my clothes back then. But the fires weren’t the recollection I was thinking of when she asked me. No, it was heat of your breath on my face and the icy chill of the known unknown coursing down my back and how they melted together and steamed within me ~ and us ~ that one night I’ll never forget.