I'd Swim Across Lake Michigan
You played your dad’s old acoustic guitar quietly, by my request. Your broad fingers producing some soft, sweet tune that sounds like something off a Sufjan Stevens album. If it were your choice you would be playing something heavier, more substantial; probably Zeppelin or the Stones. You seem content though, it’s because you’re playing for me. You’re just smiling warmly. It’s not a full-on grin, it’s more intimate than that. It’s the kind of smile I’ve only seen when I’m here; alone with you in your room. Honestly, I prefer this smile to the large toothy grin you wear like make-up when you go out.
Your feet are bare, and make a quiet slap against the wooden panelling on the floor as you move around the room. You kick the cord that should run from your shelved electric guitar to the amplifier in your closet. It skitters across the floor making loud clicks as it bounces wherever your feet direct it. The various clicks and slaps and creaks create a percussion that compliments but never overtakes your pensive guitar or your mumbled lyrics.
I ask you to put the guitar away and you oblige me. You prop it up against the closed and locked door that leads to the hall which connects your bedroom to the rest of the small house you share with your two brothers and your father. You sit down beside me on the bed and take a deep sigh, still mumbling the last lines of the song you sang silently. I like it when you sit next to me, I can see your eyes. You’re probably a little over a foot taller than me, so I have to stand back to be able to see into them. It’s hard for me to connect with people if I can’t make eye contact with them, but we’re alright when you’re sitting because you slouch.
Even when you’re sitting it’s not easy to make eye contact with you, you usually avoid my eyes, opting instead to watch my hands or my mouth. This is one of the times when you’re watching my hands. They’re a part of my body that I’m not very good at dealing with, I never know what to do with them, so I’m usually cracking my knuckles or interlocking my fingers.
I turn on the fan beside your bed, accidentally changing the ambience of the room from an orchestra of clicks and thumps to a monotone drone. I switch it off quickly, embracing the creaks of your weight shifting on the bed as you quietly try to gauge my emotions.
“What happened to your finger?” You ask, referring to the small scab forming on the side of my right index finger.
“Dog bite,” I reply, covering up the scab with my other hand. “he got too excited while I was pouring his food last night.”
“Guess he never heard about biting the hand that feeds you.” You scratch the back of your head as you say this.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard about biting the hand that feeds me.” I’m trying to break the tension, make you laugh, but you’re still scratching the back of your head, obviously uncomfortable. “Did I tell you yet that I talked to Kate about the show?”
“No, what did she say?”
“Well, they aren’t going to have any information about how much space they’ll have available until Thursday, but she can probably fit you on the bill.” We’re talking about the art show being put on by a local gallery that my paintings are going to be in. I approached the curator about you playing some music during the show, “Want to go down there after you’re done working? So they can see you play?”
“Yeah, sure. Did they tell you how many paintings you can exhibit?”
“Five maximum, so I’ll have to sort through my shit. Have you given any thought about what you’re gonna play if Karen gives you the okay?” I lean over you, to grab your copy of On the Road off your bed-side table. I always laugh at how into the beat generation you are. Jack Kerouac stopped being relevant years before we were born, and you’re completely the opposite of everything he stood for.
“I’m probably just gonna play a bunch of songs off the EP.” I accidentally place my hand on your hip and awkwardly shift it off. I apologize, but you either didn’t mind or didn’t notice. Honestly, I know which.
“Sounds great.” I reply, a dumb half-grin on my face.
“God, the lengths I go to for art!” You shout jokingly, pressing your hand to your forehead. I brush your leg again with my hand, only half-accidentally. You laugh and tell me to stop being such a creep. I watch the peaks of your teeth as they bob up and down as your chest shakes. I laugh at the ridiculousness of the evening, of our friendship.
Our laughs slowly trail off and we’re left sitting shoulder to shoulder on your bed, both comfortably aware that our hands are overlapping in a cluster of fingers. We barely breathe as the reality of the moment sets in. There’s some hollywood magic in the moment, a feeling of staged suspense with an obvious an inevitable conclusion. It’s impossible to measure how much time passes. Our minds are racing in unison around each possible outcome and event; creating webs of cause and effect, pros and cons.
“We can’t do this.” I don’t even know who says it. Maybe neither of us did and it was just the whisper of a benevolent ghost. I think that if we really got right down to it though, it was me who said it.
“You don’t even realize how much I care about you, do you?” The words were sharp and sounded cruel and unusual coming from your mouth.
“What? How can you say that?” I gasped. I sound offended, but surprised is a more accurate description.
“I care so much about you, and you just don’t give a damn.” You don’t even look at me after you say it. I couldn’t have made eye contact with you even if you had. I feel some deep, ridiculous shame that binds my eyes to my hairy, worn hands. “What will it take to get you to realize that I want to be with you? How many acoustic songs do I have to play before you give me some response? What do I need to say to get you to tell me how you feel? How much do I have to change to get you to understand what I’ve been saying to you since I met you?” You drew farther from me with each question, you’re barely an inch from falling off the bed now. “I- love- you.” You shout, annunciating each word towards the wall, your shirt is sticking to your back from the sweat.
“I don’t... know you,” I whisper unconsciously, it’s just what comes out of my mouth, “and we’re not in love.” I can’t see your reaction, but your weight is entirely off the bed now. When I look away from my damp palms, you’re kneeling in the corner of your room, your right hand pressed over your eyes and your left clenched around your stomach. “Shit, what’s wrong?” I ask, starting to move towards you.
“Just leave, you fuck, just get out.” You don’t even look at me as you cough the words, they sound like hiccoughs. I desperately want to heed your command, but I try to reason anyways.
“Look, it’s not what I meant.” I offer, desperately.
“Then what did you mean?!” You turn your head to me and shout it and there are tears on your face and neck. They act as tiny magnifying glasses over your pores. I feel like if I try I could see right into your skin. “You’ve been my best friend for thirteen years. You were with me when my brother was born and you were there when I came out. You’ve been there for me through every fucking scar and bruise and black-eye, just like I’ve been there for you. What do you mean you don’t know me?”
“I...” I trail off, I have nothing to offer in explanation. “I don’t know. It was just... Fuck, I wasn’t thinking, okay?” I’m aware of what a shitty excuse it is before I’m even finished saying it.
“Oh fuck you, just leave.” You spit the words at me and I decide it’s my turn to be the obliging one. I start to tear up as I leave your room, but I don’t actually start crying until I’m walking home in the icy snow of January. I don’t know it yet, but the next time I see you won’t be for another twelve years and the next time we actually speak to each other won’t be for another thirteen. Soon I’ll find that such is the cruel symmetry of love; thirteen years together followed by thirteen years apart.
The last time I ever see you will be in Toronto, a city you hate. I won’t be there with you, but when you see me from across the restaurant you’ll sit with me and we’ll talk. We spend twenty minutes exchanging pleasantries then you tell me you need to catch a flight. I ask where to, but you avoid answering me. You wave to me from the exit and then leave my life for good. Three years later my plane starts to rapidly lose altitude on its trip across the country. The last thing to cross my mind before we make impact with the rocky mountains is “I’ve known you from the first time I met you.” Maybe if I’d told you that, things would have been different.
With tenderness, Travis