If you were walking in the woods this late winter night you would hear how the snow muffled the sound of the world until it seemed the earth itself was holding its breath. You would see how the snow sparkled, as if trying to convince you that the stunning beauty of diamonds should make up for the bitter cold. Your breath would puff out from your mouth and your feet would crunch in the snow and while strolling along in the endless silence you might suddenly comprehend the vastness of this place and how small you are in comparison. Maybe a sudden feeling of loneliness would sweep over you. Quickly, you might turn toward home, feeling a quietly nagging need to be close to your family.
But if you paused for a moment on the way, and chanced to step into a particular clearing you would see a small house, highlighted by the rising moon. At first glance it seems cozy, but a sudden feeling of unease descends as it abruptly occurs to you that it is, in fact, not. Upon further consideration the house exudes desolation, abandonment. If you were in a hurry before, the sight of this ramshackle piece of heartbreak lends wings to your feet and you run, frantic to see your loved ones. But there is a man inside this cottage and your hasty flight catches his eye and distracts him from his misery. He does not thank you. It only reminds him that others have a place to go, others have an escape.
The lamp is burning low upon my table top
Kid is sitting at a table made of rough wood. A table stained with rum and whisky from when the pain got to be too much, gouged and splintered from when the rage overtook him. Mostly now he manages to exist in a state of numbness. He’s gotten quite good at not feeling anything. Who knows, maybe he’s even getting over it; maybe he’s finally learning to live again. But tonight it comes to him. Absorbs him, holds him, and invades him. Bidden or not, the old feelings sweep over his very soul, and he knows it is time to remember. He glances at his hands, resting on the table. It seems to him that this table symbolizes much of the mess he calls his current life. “If I had paid more attention then . . .”
He made it for Lou, made it for their life together. But, he recalls, Lou wanted to use a particularly knotty piece of pine. He remembers how entranced she was with the whorls and swirls. It was, he told her, not strong enough, it wouldn’t last long enough. It just wouldn’t do. Too many flaws, he said. So he went ahead and made the table out of a sturdy maple and was proud of the functional accomplishment. He almost didn’t see the look in Lou’s eyes when he showed her. She was disappointed. Of course, that fit with their whole story. Lou wasn’t just disappointed with the table, she was disappointed in him.
But, no. Kid didn’t like to lie to himself. “She wasn’t disappointed in me,” he whispered, “she was scared of me.” And that, he knew deeply, was the truth. Oh, she wasn’t scared that he would physically hurt her. But she was desperately scared that living with him would mean giving up on everything else. Would mean giving up whorls and swirls in the tabletop, giving up her freedom, giving up on being who she really was. If Kid had paid attention he would have known even than that Lou was always a whorls and swirls kind of woman, and she didn’t like to think of them as flaws. She didn’t like to think of herself as flawed. “I think I understand now, Lou” Kid half-moans to the silent room. On the table the steady flame of the lamp suddenly flickers and Kid feels, as he always does, that it is Lou, or some part of her she left behind.
If I could only have you near
That was the problem, Kid thought, that I didn’t listen until she was gone and it was too late. I was so sure that I was doing everything right, that I was doing what was best for both of us, that I didn’t pay any attention to Lou. “But I need you to know, I was doing it all for you, Lou” Kid spoke to the silence of the room, “I was doing it all for our life together.” This table, this chair, even the house he now sat in; he had built them all with an eye toward the future. Their future. He remembered, even now, the pleasant methodical work, and being filled with joy. Pounding the nails, sawing the lumber, sanding it all to a smooth beauty. There had been a lot of work, especially with the extra orders for his carved furniture he had been receiving. He’d been working non-stop, but had managed to make time for this, his home, his most important project. He remembered how happy he had been while he was building this place.
“But apparently” he thought with sudden anger, “it wasn’t good enough for her. Apparently she needed a little more excitement.” The quick flash of fury was all he could sustain. Almost as quickly as it came Kid’s anger fades, leaving him weak and empty. That’s just the way it was for him. Whenever he could manage to work up a really good rage it didn’t take too long and he was seeing Lou’s face and, damn it, this time it was disappointed. It was almost as if she would say to him, half angry, half disappointed, “You can hate me, Kid. But don’t you dare lie about me.” And that was the hell of this place, his life. That he now understood why Lou had left him and he found it hard to blame her for that. He understood her reasons for leaving, and while he still loved her (or her memory) too much to admit that he agreed with those reasons, he knew in his soul that she probably had been right to go.
But all the understanding in the world doesn’t take away the pain. Doesn’t make it easier to let go of the love, the dreams, the plans. He felt, sometimes, like he now had a shot at being a man she could love. That the deeper understanding of her was all she had been looking for, and that if he had done it sooner, things would never have gotten to the place they are now. That was the real irony, he decided, that he now felt that she could be happy loving the man he had become, and he would certainly be better at loving her, her true self.
The problem was that it was all just too late. He would take her back. He would search for her, go to the ends of the earth and get down on his knees and tell her that he was sorry, that he understood her a little better now, and that he wanted, he needed, her back. He had learned, but it didn’t really matter any more. It was too late. Because Lou hadn’t just left him. That he could fix, he thought. No, she hadn’t just left him. She’d left him for somebody else.
The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
Kid wasn’t sure why he did it to himself, but he had kept all of the letters that Lou had ever written to him, even those that had come at a time that were so filled with desperation, rage and pain he could barely remember how he got through the days. He looked at them now and then, and he was trying to get to a place where it wasn’t just a torture. It was getting a little better, but it often took more than a few stiff drinks. And that was just for the good letters. He could lose himself in a haze of liquor and love while reading the early letters. Sometimes this was the only thing that kept him sane, he thought, the proof that he hadn’t been the only one in love. “No, not the only,” he thought, “Just the last.”
“Where did the love go?” he wondered, “How do you write these words to someone, and then decide you love somebody else more?” As much as the old love letters were a comfort to his broken pride, his heart stuttered when he though of her saying these words to another. “Is that the way it’s supposed to work? You love someone with all your heart, and then, somehow, just turn it off?” The frustration worked its way into his voice, and he realized he wasn’t going where he need to go tonight. He was sure this kind of speculation had its place, but it never got him any place but drunk.
While he sometimes read those early letters and was okay, he was rarely able to read the letters that had come around the time she had so irrevocably left. He didn’t often let himself think back to that time, the time when things had gone so badly wrong. Basically, he tried to keep his mind firmly focused on other things, anything else, but tonight he chooses to remember. Tonight it was time to remember. And it was a time, he realized, that he remembered all too clearly once he let himself.
It was two months before the wedding date. He remembered being filled with a sense of contentment, belonging. “You were taking it all for granted,” he said to himself now, shaking his head. He saw now how, as he was sliding into a state of pleasurable satisfaction, Lou was becoming more and more skittish. He hadn't noticed at the time, the things she said, the lengthening periods between when they would see each other, the hesitation and fear in her voice and face when they did. He should have listened, and sometimes he feared he would have to spend the rest of his life regretting that time in his life; reliving conversations where he brushed Lou off with empty, unthinking words of assurance, knowing now that a few honest words of understanding could have made all the difference. Could have made her stay instead of driving her away into an isolated place of fear and apprehension. Instead of driving her to the arms of another man.
If he lived until the end of time he was certain he would never feel the same sense of dread and desperation that he felt that day, the first day he had begun to realize that something was wrong. Slowly, he drifted back to that time. He remembered he’d been getting ready to head to the barn when Lou had stopped him.
“Kid, why don’t you stick around here today?” she’d asked.
“Hey, you know I can’t do that, Lou, I’m up to my ears with all the orders.” He’d smiled and pecked her cheek. She’d asked the same thing for the past couple of mornings and for a moment he thought she would leave it at that, as she had before. But this time she called after him, “Kid” and she paused for a moment, working on something in her head, trying to get it out, “Kid, I need you to spend some time with me right now.”
“Oh, Lou,” Kid had smiled, “I miss you too. But we have the rest of our lives together after the wedding, and we’ll catch up then.”
“Kid,” Lou had said softly, almost sadly, “you’ve been working so hard lately. I know that you’re doing it for us” and she faltered, choking on the words, “but I need to be with you. I need that. Let me come with you today, I’ll help out.”
“Oh, Lou, you know that it’s too dangerous.”
“Too dangerous? Kid, all you’re really doing is working with sharp tools. I’m not a child!” Lou said in tightly restrained voice.
“Lou, I love you and I want to keep you safe. Safe forever with me. You’re mine now, and my responsibility, I need to take care of you and keep you safe. You stay here, Okay?” he had smiled down at her, loving her but wanting this to be over so that he could get to work.
“Kid, I don’t want you to keep me safe. I want you to let me be your partner! Kid,” her voice began to rise, shaking, as she saw that he was opening the door to leave, “Kid I need to talk to you!” As quickly as her voice had risen, it lowered to a whisper and Kid took this as a cue that everything was okay, that he could head out now. By this point he wasn’t really listening anymore, and he almost missed her parting words said between clenched teeth. But he could still hear them echoing through time.
“Kid, I can’t live like this.”
So he knew now. Knew that that was the point where he had really lost her. He had been so caught up in his work, in preparing for his life. He was so happy to go work in the barn during the day, and come home to Lou when he was done. But he had forgotten who Lou was, forgotten who it was that he had first fallen in love with, forgotten, certainly, that Lou would not want this kind of life. Later that day, Lou had come out to the barn.
“Kid.” It was all she said and suddenly Kid was filled with an icy knowledge that whatever was coming next was not going to be good.
“Lou, don’t,” he began, but she interrupted.
“Kid, I can’t do this,” she spoke slowly and as she was speaking tears began to leak out of her eyes to stream slowly, steadily, down her face. Her voice was thick with emotion when she said, “Kid I’m sorry, but I can’t marry you.”
And just like that his world was ending.
And even though Kid could see the truth in her face, feel the truth in his bones, he tried. “What the hell are you talking about Lou? We’re getting married in two months. I love you. You love me. I love you” he said this last with force born of desperation.
With tears streaming down her face Lou just looked at him. Her voice choked with contained grief and sorrow, and she finally said, “Yes. Yes I love you. Have loved you. Will love you. But I cannot be with you anymore. I can’t do this Kid. I love you so much but I can’t.”
“Lou, how could you?” Kid whispered “How could you do this to me?”
As the sobs that she seemed to be so desperately trying to contain finally escaped, Lou answered his question, “I’m so sorry, Kid. But I’m not sure I even know you anymore. You haven’t really talked to me in weeks and you have our whole future planned out and you don’t even ask when you make a decision, or if you do you just ignore what I said. When I said I would marry you, I didn’t know . . .” and here she just stopped for a moment, “I didn’t know it would be like this. You don’t talk to me like we’re still the same people. And I’m starting to feel like a different person! Look at me! I spent the past couple of weeks being so scared. Scared to be with you, scared to not be with you. Kid.” she choked out, “I don’t like being scared. I just . . . I just don’t know what else to do, Kid.” As she spoke, releasing the frustration, she was beginning to calm down. “Kid, I have tried, god knows, and you know, that I have tried. And now I don’t know what else to do. So I’m leaving. And I’m sorry, and I love you, but love isn’t enough. This isn’t about punishing you; it is about saving me, Kid. But I really am sorry that that means doing this to you. I wish I knew a better word than sorry. I wish I knew a better thing than leaving.”
The two stood looking at each other, worlds and futures and dreams crashing down around them, pain and regret exploding to fill the place that was left. Composing herself, Lou turned to go. “Kid. I’m sorry. I’m more sorry than you will ever really know.” A few more tears now trickled down her tear stained face. “I love you and I’m sorry, but I’m leaving now.” Looking back at him she said, “Kid, we could have gotten married, and we may have even been happy for a while. But it would have killed me eventually. I deserve more. And it wouldn’t have been fair to you either. I’m doing this now for both of us so that we don’t have to do it later.”
And she left.
It was only later that he realized Jimmy was gone too.
Remembering hurts. He remembered how, when he found out that not only had Lou left him but she had left with Jimmy, it seemed like any one person’s body shouldn’t, couldn’t contain that much pain. That much rage. He hit things, he threw things, and he drank with a vengeance. Anything to help him forget, anything to release some of the pain that seemed to be swelling, stretching his skin. He had been a wild man, desperate and out of control. I’m not real sure, he thought, that any man is built to withstand that kind of pain. It was weeks before he could even think coherently. Weeks before he could even examine the betrayal, the love, the need.
And then the letters came. Every couple of days a letter, with her sprawling handwriting on the envelope, or Jimmy’s bold determined strokes. He threw them away. Burned them. Tore them up. But still they came. I don’t want to hear about it, he had thought, I am full enough with my own feelings. I can’t hear from them. Until one day, his hands, set to rip it to shreds, instead, shaking, opened the envelope. Opened it and saw that they had written it together, their handwriting mixing on the page. It was days of drinking before he recovered from that. But when he had, it was still there, and the ones that had come after it. He cursed them for doing this, hated them for it. Later, he realized that, somehow, the letters had gotten him through the worst.
The words never really changed all that much, but eventually, he realized that that meant that Lou and Jimmy hadn’t changed either. In the letters Lou and Jimmy didn’t try to explain themselves, or their actions. They just wrote about their days, where they were living, townspeople they had met. The sheer normalcy was soothing, and almost against his will Kid began to live again. For months there was never even a mention of that day, or what they did. Kid never wrote back but the letters kept coming, and eventually, Lou started to write about what had happened between them. At first she just said that she needed him to know that she and Jimmy hadn’t been involved while she and Kid had been engaged. That he had just been a friend. Then she had said that she needed him to understand why she was with Jimmy as more than a friend. “He doesn’t want me to change at all, Kid. We fit together in a way you and I never did, as hard as we tried.” Sentences like that would enrage him, until he found himself feeling their truth. Her “needs” drove him crazy with impotent anger, until he realized that he needed it too. One day he would write a letter back, telling them that he understood. As soon as he was sure he did understand. One day, when he didn’t still hate them, just a little bit, he would write and tell them that he understood. They had never asked for forgiveness, but in his heart, he would give it too them. He hoped that would be soon.
The fire is dyingMorning was coming. “Well, I made it through another night without her,” Kid thought with a shadow of a smile. He realized that it was getting easier to do that. Sometimes, she wasn’t even the first thing he thought about. It wasn’t even that the nights were the worst, just that they were the longest. And he couldn’t control his dreams. He had come a long way since she left him, and a long way this past night. He was trying to remember Lou without crippling pain, and trying to imagine who he was without her. He was a little proud of how much stronger he had become. As the cold white light of a winter morning began to shine he started to feel new.
The honest truth was he hadn’t loved Lou the way he should have. He didn’t take the time to know her, and he tried to change her, tried to make her be somebody she wasn’t. He had loved being in love, and had given his whole heart to Lou, but a small corner of his mind knew that he was living in an imaginary world. Changing reality to fit his image of what things should be like. It was a long time before he would admit this, even to himself. It was a long time before he could even see this. He had been blind with love, then blind with complacency, then blind with rage, but, finally, he felt he was able to see again. He saw what he had done to her and what he had tried to make of her, so he couldn’t blame her for running. Sometimes he was sick with understanding. It was easier, purer, and less complex to hate them. Hate her. But, dammit, his conscience never let him do that for long, because part of him knew that she had been able to do what she had done because she had a strength he didn’t possess.
If I could only have you nearSometimes Kid thought that he was dying, that the pain was killing him. Sometimes he only wished it. He still thought of her every day. But no longer every moment of every day. He had begun to forgive her for leaving him. He had also begun to forgive himself. As he looked towards the rising sun he allowed himself one last memory, and this one was special. It was a long time ago, back when he was the only one who even knew that Lou was a girl. One morning, he was getting ready to leave for an early morning ride. The sun was just cresting the horizon when she came out of the bunkhouse, dressing only in her long johns and wrapped in a blanket, rubbing her sleep-blurred eyes. He had asked her what she was doing up so early and she looked at him with a smile, her face still in that wonderful state of sleepy peacefulness, and said, “I just wanted to tell you to be careful out there.” She had reached for his hand and he still remembered the sensation of holding her hand. They had never spoken of love, but in that moment, looking into her warm brown eyes, he suddenly knew that that’s what this was. It had felt magical.
He felt recently, like he was coming to terms with his life. But sometimes he ached to hold her so badly it was like he had been gut-punched. Sometimes all he wanted was for one last touch, one last time to feel her small hand in his. Given just one more chance to hold the hand he had loved so hard. For so long he had been unable to think about times like that with Lou. But he realized now that whatever the outcome, that moment had been true, that love had been real. He was a lucky man to have ever had such a thing. Maybe he and Lou hadn’t been right for each other. Maybe she had given up too quickly. Maybe he had. But he still had that moment, and many others, to hold in his heart. He couldn’t live in the past, and he couldn’t be angry anymore. He raised his now empty glass to the morning light and said, “Good-bye, Lou. I love you.” He stood up to start the day and as a sudden wind rushed through the cabin he wished his departing dream a happy new life. It would have been their first wedding anniversary today. Instead, Kid made it a beginning for himself, on his own.