Words on a Page, or, the Wisdom of Innocence

When I was 17, I had a sprained ankle. I was babysitting for neighbor kids, jumping on their trampoline, when I slipped and fell on the sprain again at an awkward angle.

It was agonizing. I could barely breathe. I let out a cry and, like an emotional cascade, tears started to flow from missing Andy, the boy I loved. I hadn’t let myself cry over him. It was a first love. A chaste, puppy love. The kind of emotions only teenagers can feel; theatrically intense, absorbing, and entirely and completely unrealistic.

I had left for college, he had left for California. I was in art school, listening to The Cure. He was writing comedy sitcoms and pitching them to studios in LA, trying out his talent. We wrote to each other every night, long emails from across the country. I walked the leafy streets of Providence, where Rhode Island School of Design was, and listened to the songs he used to sing to me, my entire being one raw nerve. Every now and then when a familiar song came on, I’d feel gutted. It was my first extended stay away from home.

We had told each other everything, like two best friends, enamored. His words just spoke to me. I got him. He was the coolest. We used to sit in the only 24-hour diner in three counties until the wee hours of the morning drinking coffee and eating Greek gyros, inexplicably served all night. Then, caffeine and sugared up, we’d have endless conversations under the moonlit gauze of 4 am street lamps, puffing on cigarettes, dreaming and scheming. Time together was precious. It seemed to rest suspended in stolen moments, structured as our teenaged lives were, and we showed it the melodramatic importance we felt it deserved.

He is a writer, too, and it was his words that I fell in love with. We wrote gobs to each other. Emails, stories, letters, poems. We created fantasy worlds, where we played the roles we wanted to be in real life, losing ourselves in imagination. His words turned my insides liquid. Heady, discombobulating, stirring me until there was no more of me left but a lukewarm bath of shared intimacy; my identity suspended for a sweet, brief spell of connection. It was my first taste of abandonment of self to a higher pleasure.

It was a first, teenage love. A hardcore, throwing yourself wholeheartedly into something that may or may not begin to be rational. Not caring how outrageous it may seem. Throwing open the door of your soul in utter vulnerability, childlike; a hand out in a simple, trusting gesture. And oh the pain of those first heartbreaks. The violent vulnerability of those first inklings of love; the courage of a heart untouched by pain.

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He has a baby boy now. I am happy for him. He’s accomplished what he wanted in life, all he craved; stability, a home. I barely graduated high school, he used to say. By the skin of my teeth! It wasn’t ever true. We used to joke about how we’d live in domestic bliss, how we wanted to shop for sugar dispensers, making our future together loom extra large in our imaginations. Perhaps because we knew it would never happen, pulled as we were irrevocably on our paths towards separate destinies— forward and on and away.

I feel nothing but joy now when I look at his grinning son, sticky from jelly and donning a funny hat. His son looks so much like him that I can’t help but chuckle. I imagine how he feels looking at that tiny sticky face, and I know he must be deeply content. He did it, I think to myself, slightly proud. Next time you come into town you can tell me more insane travel stories, he said, the day he told me he was engaged, and I had just gotten back from Nepal on a trip to study Buddhism in the Himalayas.

That was the first goodbye. I’ve had to learn to say goodbye so many more times since then. Hold on loosely and let people go, I keep reading. Everything is impermanent. Give up all attachments. It’s the only way to soothe your aching heart, to avoid pain. Life moves quick, and people drift. That’s what they all say.

But its not completely true.

Those beloved memories have their permanence of sorts, woven as they are into your being. Those memories are stored, like emotional time bombs, hidden in the cellars of your body. Those feelings, how true they were then, stay somewhere in you. It seems we can go back into those times and experience them again. Time, cyclical, folding back onto itself. Life, alive with stories, is the only thing that’s real. I really think stories are the currency of life, he said once.

When I read his words now, a poem, or a comedy sketch, almost fifteen years later, I feel a cascade of warmth; a seeping reminder that I once experienced an innocent feeling of the rawest form. There’s a wisdom to that innocence, to that childlike giving.

Somewhere in the universe, sitting on a park bench at night and smoking cigarettes, sixteen years old, those two still exist. High school coming to an end, they’re trying to hold onto a moment that they already know is slipping away, inevitably away. It’s bittersweet. Sweetbitter.

I can still find the sweetbitter in his words. Words are so powerful like that. Words, a key into someones very heart, remain on the page, a little conduit into their spirit left sitting open long after they’re gone. It’s dangerous, writing things down. They have a life of their own, then. You give them a life of their own. I read his magic words, and the longing is recaptured, in a memory perfectly etched in love:

A young boy’s face illuminated by a streetlamp in a tree-lined parking lot, the iridescent shine of rainwater on nighttime tarmac, the puff of a menthol cigarette, and a kiss that could never have lasted long enough, were it to happen at all.