– 17 –
The bus rolls into the city, hisses and roars from its underbelly as it acquaints with the pavement, a commotion all but ignored by the people on the streets. Michael glances up from his iPod, looks out at the blue-gray washing over everything. On his iPod, the All-American Rejects vow that It Ends Tonight, and his thoughts are pulled to a love that sifted through his hands before he was ready to let go.
Along with him for the ride are a few dozen high school students, all members of the marching band. In the summer, they don white shirts and sunburns, devoting the month of June to a parking lot under the Indiana sun. Brass melodies, staccato drumline exercises, jokes made covertly to one another while the band director watches overhead. Right now, though, it’s December, and they’re bundled beneath coats, Midwest kids preparing to explore the urban colossus.
New York City. The bus lurches to a stop, chaperones standing and gesturing toward a breakfast buffet. Nobody really knows it, but they’re a breath downtown of Harlem. Following the line, Michael steps off the bus and out onto the sidewalk. In the distance, there are sirens. Passersby on the sidewalk shuffle irritably past the growing mob of high schoolers, picking up their pace as if to say get out of the way.
And there it is, impalpable, an energy suddenly jolting through his body. Oh my god, he can’t help but smile. I’m here.
– 24 –
The lobby is empty, save for large bins of white linens, and it doesn’t look like anybody’s outside the window, either. It’s early May, and the sunset is late, but this mission runs later. Squinting to see past the glass, Michael catches sight of his own reflection: bundled, as usual, in this gray hoodie, a pair of basketball shorts, thick-framed black glasses. I look chubby, he frowns, then waves the thought away. He walks to his office, some of which he’s begun to box away, early symptoms of a chapter concluding.
Michael sits, the chair familiar to the way he leans back and lifts his legs to squeeze between him the desk. It was here, in this office, that he wrote his graduate thesis, late nights and long playlists. He laughed with students here, and sometimes he stayed with them here while they cried. He recorded Vines here, pleasant distraction from his Methodology chapter. All the early mornings, checking emails and imagining he might be doing this forever. Now he’s here, lost among boxes, so many of those finish lines crossed.
On Spotify, he summons Sara Bareilles, reminding him to be Brave. The Word document opens, and the cursor blinks, daring him to begin. Mom, he writes. Behind his sternum, something tightens, and his breathing gets shallower. What do you write to someone you were born to love? To the person you grew up reaching for in every heartache? How do you tell the people who brought you into the world that you’ve been hiding your heart from them?
Daunting as the mountain stands, he knows he has to begin. A lesson learned from his thesis, perhaps. He writes, imagining he’s standing and facing her and he’s brave enough to say the truth without shrinking it or hiding the hard parts away. His eyes are dams breaking, his fingertips shaking between presses of the keyboard letters.
Whatever is next, he reminds himself, a hope stitched across his sternum, will be honest. Paragraph after paragraph, rolling out from the part of him he’s grown so familiar with closing behind doors. Living the honest complexity will be better than the simple lie.
That’s what he hopes, typing on his own in a building near vacant. He is a skydiver looking out, readying himself to jump, promising himself he will grin upon landing. But here, right now, his palms want to clench themselves onto the floor of the aircraft.
– 26 –
“You’re sure you don’t want to come?” they ask, standing outside his car window, three pairs of eyes studying him. Behind them, the double doors of the local Mexican restaurant, margarita special on Friday. Overhead, the July sky is bright blue, sun blanketing everything.
“I’m sure,” Michael says, wishing them a good time and reminding them to text when the meal is done. He rolls the window up, music rising as he wheels up and to the right, laptop sitting amicably in the backseat. The blue Honda nestles beside the coffee shop, and he steps out into it, the city he called home during every significant heartbreak thus far. He pulls the laptop up into his arms, walks inside. Iced coffee, no sweetener, extra soy.
He chooses a seat tucked away in a corner, tries not to remember that, maybe a month ago, he’d come here with the man he loved. The man who left. But, of course, he does remember, and pain stretches through him like branches, all stemming from his lungs. He inhales and exhales, practiced now in the art of grieving.
Michael cracks the laptop open and to life, unsure exactly what he’s about to say. Write a letter, he often tells students who are struggling with words unspoken to somebody else, you don’t have to give it to them, but write it. Then you’ll know what you have to say.
In the spirit of doing what he says, he opens a Word document and begins. At times, he knows, writing can feel like pulling rope through the eye of a needle, a resistant process of give and take, so much stubborn second-guessing and searching for the right words. This time, though, the sentences flood out from his hands, fingers barely able to keep up with the onslaught of meaning. All the heartache he’s been bundling behind stitches, set suddenly free, and he has only to set it down.
When it’s finished, he reads over it and begins to cry. Reading over it, he can suddenly see himself from the outside, shattered heart and fragile hope, a man trying, white knuckles, to love through his pain. Nothing he’s written, he becomes convicted, is unfair, none of it untrue or exaggerated. It’s a love letter, not just to what was but what will be, perhaps even to himself. Acknowledgment that he tried, ran his hardest, gave it everything, painted love in every corner of the world, and he’s going to live through the rinsing away.
Michael’s phone lights up, pulling him back to the moment. July 2016. Muncie, Indiana. Overhead, the Starbucks playlist gives way to the Avett Brothers –– the song Laundry Room. “We’re ready, friend,” Robbie says, and Michael nods. Before tucking the laptop away, he sends the letter to its recipient, closes the laptop and tucks it away.
Again, writing is his rescuer.
– 29 –
Saturday morning, but he won’t be sleeping in. The sky is defiantly bright, peering into his bedroom and looking at what he’s posted up on the walls. Gradually, his eyes open, and he realizes he made the happy accident of giving himself a free day in New York City. Behind him, framed on the walls, are words that remind him of the story so far: brave, friend, magic, heart, mind, unfurl, story.
Headphones in, he hears the opening notes of Taylor Swift’s New Year’s Day. Grinning, he presses open the front door and steps out into the December air. Five months in, and he still forgets he lives here until he gets out in the middle of it. In minutes, he has coffee and a bagel, and he’s making his way for the train. Up on the sidewalk, he’s striding in a mob of everybody going everywhere, alone and far from it.
Tomorrow, he’ll rise early and take his bag to the airport, boarding a plane en route to his family. He’ll hug his nieces, spend meals with his brothers and sisters, bug his mom and dad to take him to coffee, wrestle with the dogs. But, for today, the world is a blank canvas, and New York City has given him a palette dripping with every color.
He breathes in, hope prospering and reminding him that his every want is a call to action. He wants love, so he should live well and stand authentic. He wants adventure, so he nurtures the habit of venturing out, leaving his apartment behind. He wants a rich story to tell, so he wanders outside of his walls, discovers the rich spectrum of love, pain, everything, takes time to scribble it down. This is it, life a treasure map unfolding all around his feet, here, now, everything.