We took the canoe out on the pond last night. I had gotten off the bus just before Rosewood so I could walk down Belknap, our cross-fingers soon-to-be street. When I got to the pond, you were there already, as were several people on the banks just hanging out doing that pensive nothing one tends to do when sitting at the side of a pond in the evening.
I called out, though not too loudly, “hey there, can I have a ride?”
You’d seen me. You were already paddling toward me. Then you stepped into the pond to stable the canoe so I could get in and I threw in my bag and jumped in after. And you kissed me.
The air was warm and moist and smelled of summer. The light was low. You paddled and I sat facing headward, then turned so I could face you. In the background I saw that people had been watching us. Maybe they’d seen you carrying and setting down the canoe, strong and alone. Maybe they’d seen you go back for the paddles and life vests. Maybe they’d watched you put in and paddle out a bit to wait for me. And maybe then they’d seen me arrive and wave and you paddle back for me… One guy was smiling ever so softly, maybe wistfully. In any case, that’s how I’d have felt –sweetly wistful– watching us in the evening light on the pond in the air that smelled of summer.
Later, coming back close to dark, the just-waxing moon, the early-night air, the quiet water smelling of lake and of life… Most people who’d been on the banks of the pond earlier, gone home, or gone to wherever it is that people go when they leave a pensive pond. But on the island, on our island, on the island where you and I claimed a spot as our own last week in the clearing in the sun, on the island where M had, earlier that day, spotted a deer that you’d then named Otto, on that island last night it was hard.
Your eyes had kept darting to and fro and to and fro, supposedly looking for Otto, but in a restless kind of anxious energy. The whole time we ate you didn’t look at me, at least not with anything that felt like the lingering soft gaze of seeing, really seeing something, and I found myself feeling more and more lonesome and far away.
It’s hard for me when you’re not present and I sense you far away and distract-y… In those moments, it’s hard for me to find presence for myself within myself. That’s my challenge. I tend to want to go chasing after your presence. To get you back. I get tight. What people call “controlling,” but what is, more accurately, “scared.” Then I tend to withdraw in a hurt way and get hard and closed off, not only toward you but also, inevitably, toward me. After all, we do onto ourselves what we do onto others.
We definitely do onto ourselves what we maybe do onto others.
When I close off and harden protectively toward you, I close off to myself.
I’m still feeling the sting about what you told me Sunday about your conversation with M a couple months ago.
You’d told me in response to my saying, “We should go camping this summer with M!” I’d been excited hearing about the deer, about the unexpected visit to our island (your second trip in a day!), the sunbathing turtles, the red-winged swath-of-joy blackbirds… I’d been hopeful: hopeful about our new place together, hopeful about family, hopeful about the sweet and good moments and exchanges I’d recently had —and, truth be told, been collecting like stones in my pocket (I now had a little handful of them)— with M… Moments that felt tender, like wee shoots barely just popping out of the ground. Delicate, yet full of possibility. A sense of possibility to which I couldn’t help but adding happy stories and soundtracks.
You: Want to go camping this summer?
You: The two of us or the three of us?
She: The two of us.
On Sunday night you said to me, “That must have felt like a gut punch.”
You’d noticed right away. I tried not to show it, but I could feel my heart sink the moment you said it. Like a tiny bubble had just burst. Ow. And just like that I felt a shell draw over my heart and watched myself retreat into myself even while I tried not to… Then throughout the evening I went from being somewhat alright and enjoying the game and our show, to feeling the sting, to thinking I shouldn’t feel hurt, always putting on the brave-face pretending it wasn’t such a big deal, telling myself I should be past this already.
That night, a nightmare. A tall bus with a new-in-town couple (who is looking for an apartment) tips over and I scrape my face on the pavement. I wake up with a cry. You are asleep.
“Go ahead, the two of you. Go without me. I’m fine.” I rehearse in my head.
Then, “Nah, I don’t need you anyway,” still in my head.
And then, from that place, I take the bus to work. “I don’t need your car anyway,” I think, again in my head.
“I walked everywhere before I knew you.” I think some more.
And then, “Your car is at your place,” I text, no longer just in my head, wondering if my text sounds as hurt as this part of me feels. Hoping it doesn’t, and hoping it does.
And then, as minds tend to do, my mind starts scanning for evidence of rejection related to family, showing me pictures of how M had turned and pulled away when you’d suggested I have a look at her hand, her sensitive skin, the eczema. And how, again, she’d turned away and brushed her long hair, her mouth set in determination to do it alone, when you’d suggested that I might help with her pig tails.
I see how innocent your telling me what M said was. How, sure, the conversation could have been handled differently, like how maybe it’d have been better not to set it up in that either-or kind of way, and how, maybe, given what the last month or so has brought us, it’d have been better not to tell me what she’d said…
You’re learning and I’m learning and we’re all learning, but it all feels so big and hard, especially to the part of me so much wanting family, including brushing a girl’s hair and kissing away the bits that hurt…
Is it possible to keep showing each other our softness?
Is it possible to show the tender or ugly or hurt or angry underbelly places? Not in a blaming way, but in an here-I-am-this-is-who-I-am-right-now kind of way?
Is it possible to bring the softness and trust intrinsic to the act of smoothing back and brushing hair to a girl who won’t let me brush hers?
Is it possible to stay soft when life feels hard?