Today, it is hot.
I can feel the heat washing over me; how I slowly begin to sweat, first on my brow, then under my arms. The sun is bright and I have to squint my eyes to see ahead of me on the road. I feel head-achy, as if some small person were taking a hammer and quietly hanging artwork in the home that is my mind. It’s not excruciating, just nagging. A little “tink”, “dink”, “boink” here and there.
I’ve started thinking about him again. After years of obsessing over him as a child, then 10 years without another thought, here he comes again, like lightning, sharp and bright, and unmistakable. I am like a cat on a hot tin roof, constantly looking over my shoulder, caught, startled out of deep thought. I am convinced everyone can read my thoughts on my face, like an open book. Surely they know I am guilty; guilty of the greatest sin. They cringe, are they laughing at me? I am sure it is as clear as a scarlet A on my chest.
But no, no one is looking at me. No one cares about me, or my thoughts. They ask me how I’m doing, ask how life is treating me, and I smile and say, “well, thank you.” They walk away, no more concerned with my thoughts than a sparrow is concerned with being able to fly. I let out a breath.
My “sin” is not a sin at all, although my conscience, ever wise and true, seems to nag at me that it is perverse in some way, and I should, by any means necessary, be rid of it. I had, for a while, banished all thoughts of him. I had closed every book, torn out every page of every journal that mentioned him, and sent it through the shredder. (The Romantic in me wished I had a fire to burn the pages in, but alas, I do not live in the 19th century. We owned a wood burning fireplace, but it was never lit.) I hid away the pictures and tucked away the letters I had written. Letters . . . letters to a dead man.
God, it’s so unbearably hot. I take off my coat, stopped at a red light on my way back. The air-conditioning is on full blast, as I am hoping the noise will drown out the buzzing of my thoughts. I reach for my phone.
“Do you remember how old we were when we used to pretend to be A and E?” I text my best friend, who grew up by my side, never once questioning the judgment of her 11 year old friend who pretended to be a girl in 19th century England, in love with a gentleman twice her age. Age, that ambiguous thing; it didn’t mean anything to me back then. You could tell me that I was 11 and you were 35 and that meant we were too far apart to ever be the same. But I would only shake my head and say, “So? What does it matter? It’s a number on a page, it doesn’t mean anything. You’re a person, and so am I. You can talk, and so can I. You’re simply just trying to tell me that you’re wiser because your number is different looking than mine, and that doesn’t make any sense at all.” Ever since then, ever since discovering the man who changed my life forever, age has meant nothing to me. I have been in love with those 5 years younger than me, and those 25 years older. When I meet someone for the first time, I don’t see a number, I see a person, and that’s all we should see. What does it matter if someone is older or younger than is conventionally acceptable, when in relation to another human being? Why, why, why does age always get in the way of love? Always . . . always, always.
The light is green. Someone honks at me to go. I come to, and take off, embarrassed by my lack of concentration.
His voice – at least, the voice I imagined him to have – comes to me, with startling clarity, as if he is seated right next to me. (I laugh to myself, thinking about how horrified he would be at the sight of cars. “This machine! The logic of it makes no sense! How does it go so fast? It is terribly unsafe, is it not? You must slow down, please! 25 miles per hour seems far too fast, don’t you think?”) He is saying something, quietly, under his breath, about being lonely. He’s telling me to stop, please stop, just stop.
“It is so lonely, my dear. So lonely, living your life in a room by yourself. It is unbearable, the silence. The silence, it is deafening, it is weakening. Don’t be lonely. Don’t choose to live alone, like I did. You will regret it. Nothing is worth giving up on love for. Stop, please. Stop holding on to this, to me. Let me go, please. I want to rest. You need to be free. Stop this. Stop, please.”
I read somewhere that if you hold onto the memory of someone after they’ve passed, they never really die. That’s how they become ghosts. You’re chaining them to the earth, making it impossible for them to be at peace. You have to let go of them to lose them. Am I chaining him here? Was he at peace, and I brought him back? I try to say something, but he doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t hear anything. I wish I could get him to say what I want to hear, but he is here only to say what is necessary. What I need to hear, not what I want.
I brought him back to life by reading a book. He filled the pages, his voice, his scent. He was so real. More real than any person I had met so far in my life. All the adults I knew seemed so fake. So intent on telling little girls like me that we know nothing of the world and never will. But he was not like that. He didn’t tell the girl in the story that she was too dumb, or too young, or too anything. He said she was perfect. He said she was smart. He treated her like every girl wants to be treated. Like a person. I projected myself onto the girl in the story, convincing myself her and I were one in the same, regardless of the 150 years that separated us. And if she was in love with him, then so was I. (Although, I will admit, it didn’t take much convincing for me to fall in love with him of my own accord.)
The one thing about me as a child is that I was never embarrassed or ashamed about anything I did or said. I was, without a doubt, 100% me. Although I loved this about myself, most people did not. I did not have many friends because they definitely labeled me as “the weird kid”. I played dress up and talked to myself or my imaginary friends constantly. For some reason, the kids I was around, were not like this. They were groomed by their parents to turn out just like themselves – incredibly smart, intimidating, popular, and boring. No one had an imagination, no one read any books, no one was unique. They bored me. It is, unfortunately, human nature to want to be liked. From far too early of an age, we groom ourselves to appear one way, to attract the attention and approval of other people. This mars us. It takes away our true selves, and in it’s place puts a piece of someone else’s ideals.
God it’s so hot. I look for the temperature reading but the sun glints off my dashboard making it impossible to read. I huff and pull at the collar of my shirt.
After the book, there were pictures. I printed out every picture I could find of him, and nearly everyone he had taken of her, or others. He was a photographer, and most of the portraits I had of him were self-portraits. I chose my favorite and put it in my locket. The locket I had been given by my grandmother, but for ages had kept empty because I never found anyone worthy enough to be encased in it. My first and biggest mistake was not telling my friends about the man in the book. No, it was wearing that damn locket. You can’t wear a locket and not have dirty, stubby little fingers trying to pry it from your neck and peek inside.
It was hard to explain to them, who he was or what he meant to me. The only one who didn’t question or judge me for it was my best friend. She would dress up with me, in our giant, Victorian dresses, and prance around the property that surrounded her family’s farm. It was there, away from prying eyes, that I acted out every fantasy I ever had. My best friend would write letters to me, pretending they were from him. Saying how he was sorry he had stayed away, that he would always love me, and that not even our cruel mother (for we pretended to be sisters, her and I) could keep him away from me. For that is the ending I wanted, the ending I wanted for him and her, that they never got. The story that I knew we would have had, had he and I known the privilege of each other’s company.
I can feel my mind spinning in circles now. My thoughts are not cohesive any longer. When did I give up on him? When was it exactly that I had had enough of children laughing at me, and people not understanding any longer? I was young, so they excused me that, but it was still . . . odd. Here I was, barely a teenager, in love with a man – a real one, thank goodness – but someone who had been long gone for over a century. Someone who I didn’t know. Someone people called horrible, horrible things like a pedophile and an outsider. They ignored his brilliance in writing, his advances in the mathematical community, his eye for capturing beauty in the art of photography. People fear what they do not understand, and unfortunately his life left so many holes that people have filled with hate and evil and gossip and rumor. Why can’t people just leave be what they do not understand? Why can’t they, when presented with no solid answer, just leave it a mystery, rather than making up their own sordid account of what they think happened? Why are people so quick to see the evil in mankind rather than the good?
I don’t know . . . perhaps he was an evil man. But really, no. I don’t think he was. The letters and journals and stories he left behind show a man encased by a society who wouldn’t let him dream. Perhaps he went a little mad. Wouldn’t we all, if everyone were constantly telling us we were wrong, stupid, ignoble, ignorant, lost, lonely? He had no one, absolutely no one, who cared about him, until he met her, and then, something happened. She was taken away from him. He lost everything, in one, fail swoop. How could you not be crushed, in a moment, like that? I would be. I am, for him. I feel his loss, my heart breaks for the lonely and lost of the world. I cannot help but ache for those people.
Perhaps that is why I am so attached to him. I want to fix the hurting and the hopeless. I want to prove to those who say they are alone that they are anything but. I want to pick up the pieces and glue them back together with the steady hand of a tinker. But also, he has helped me. In a time in my life where I felt so misunderstood, so different, so alone, here came a man, a figure in the mist, who told me everything would be alright. Who became my best friend, when I had none. Who showed me love in the purest and simplest form. Who taught me to be brave and true to myself and that no one could stop me. I owe him so much.
How can you love someone you’ve never met? I don’t know. It was an instant, electric connection. I read his works, his letters, his journals. I saw every bit of him in every word, every mark he left on the world. I think it is almost a truer sense of love. I was not making any judgement of him based on appearance, income, or reputation. I took what he said, and I chose to believe every word. I didn’t let other people’s accounts of him mar my vision. I see him through rose colored glasses, the same glasses he saw the world through. The glasses that made him hopeful in the face of trial. Words are power, I’ve said it before, and all he left us were words. I’ve read them thousands of times over, and pieced together a man I believe was every bit as innocent as the children he surrounded himself with. I was one of those children, decades later, who was enveloped by his stories, his wit and humor, his love . . .
I pull up to the curb and park. I turn off my engine and sit, the air silent and still. I roll down my window and a brush of air floats through, lifting the hair off my back, tickling my neck like the caress of fingers. I glance to my right, the seat next to me is empty. I can see the faint outline where his body would be, dressed in clothes outdated for this day and age. Do I hear something? I wait, still. Nothing. It’s getting hotter by the moment, the air stagnant again.
I should let him go. I should move on. Even after contemplating for this long, I have no good reason for him to appear so suddenly back into my life like he has. I was just overcome. I had an urge to rediscover what had fueled me before. It has terrified me, to reawaken this part of myself that I shut down so long ago. Rereading and learning things that, as a child, I did not fully understand. I see now, the places which caused others concern. I see the way words and looks and moments can be misinterpreted. It makes me cry, instantly, the cruelty of growing up: of moving on when you are not ready to. Who am I to say I could give this man the love he wanted? What does it matter that one person was unhappy? He is dead, and I cannot change the past. Why am I so hell bent on proving to the world that he was innocent? He’s not my concern.
And then you realize, these are words you say to yourself to prove you are not in love with a ghost. You’re not in love with someone who never looked at you with loving eyes. Who never said your name, or held your heart in his hands. You are in love with the idea of a man. But the idea does not the man make. You know nothing, and you shake your head because no reason, no logic, can make you feel any other way. And then you sigh, tears streaming down your face, because that, that is love.
“How strange and miraculous and unnerving it is to stumble accidentally on your capacity to open yourself so completely to someone else. To know you will always feel this way and that time can have no possible effect. To watch it, like a natural wonder, like Niagara Falls, the eternal feeling rising up inside of you, flowing with deafening force, glittering in the sun, even though it is of no practical use.”
It is finally too hot to remain still any longer. I open my door, fresh air bursting into my lungs like a tide, and look at the sky. When did it get so grey? Wasn’t the sun out just moments before? I finally take the time to read the temperature.
I look at the thermometer.
58 degrees F.