In April the city fills with a specific smell. I didn’t know that I knew that in my body until I woke up one drizzling morning and the air smelled like it did when you died. Of course I wanted to ask you: Have you ever noticed the smell of April in New York? Rain-damp branches, spring flowers blooming. In Riverside Park the desolation of winter must be streaking white-pink with magnolias, cherry blossoms. Skin-soft petals scattered across the hibernating ground. I haven’t been, but I remember. I remember: running along the Hudson in the mornings, the water glinting sterling in the pale half-light, and on the walk back stopping at Broadway to stretch my calves against a lamppost and text you about breakfast. Holding hands with James that first red autumn as we passed a playground and wondering what you would say if I told you that for a second I could see us having kids, which was the moment I knew I was in love. Dragging you out of the library during reading week: You’re becoming the Miss Havisham of Butler, come on, you’ll feel better when we get back. I don’t know if you did but you said you did. I watched your face for the speck of a lie and I couldn’t find it but I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t there. Like some desperate ornithomancer scanning the horizon for distant birds.
My sister says, It takes a long time to really feel like someone’s gone. I think that’s where the idea of ghosts comes from — this thing that’s there, even though it’s not really there.
But you were always there even when you weren’t there. If the house of my heart is haunted now, it’s because you lived there, too.
I don’t think you noticed the smell. It wasn’t the kind of thing you noticed. Your brow furrowed, a week late: Did you cut your hair? But you would have listened to me talking about it. You always listened.
Sometimes when I talk to you like I’m talking to you now, like I’m talking to you nearly always, I feel insane. Sometimes when I talk to you I feel pathetic. Sometimes when I talk to you I remember that you won’t talk back and it’s like the blood has stopped inside my body or like my body has stopped inside time. A chronological coagulation: movement stopped and with it breath. With it my own life, my livingness. With it the person I was the moment you died and will be always. Sometimes when I talk to you I worry that I’m forgetting important things like the sound of your laugh.
When I don’t talk to you I feel that I am not myself. I feel like a photo negative of Julia, small and stripped of color and inside out. A record of the light that shone through me and left. The voice that sounds mine is the voice that talked to you first and last and always. When I don’t talk to you I don’t recognize the person in my head.
I don’t always want to talk to Eliot but I think you would have wanted me to talk to Eliot so I do. He talks to me and I think it’s for the same reason. I haven’t asked; it’s not that kind of talking. We talk with each other like travelers in a distant and hostile country, relieved to have found someone who speaks the language of our native shores. Asking: do you remember the quality of the sunlight on the water there? The bread and the wine, the sounds of local birds? The rhythm of our ancestral tongue, back home. Do you recognize these, our customs, so foreign to everyone on this alien continent? The land of the ungrieving. The land of the still whole.
Eliot says, I keep waiting for it to get better.
I say, I’m not.
Eliot takes a long drag on his cigarette. I think about all those years you gave me shit for smoking and wonder what I should have seen in you when you picked it up. Eliot says, I guess I’m not really either. It just seems like what you’re supposed to say.
I say, I don’t really give a shit about what you’re supposed to say.
Eliot laughs like wood breaking. He says, I guess that’s what he liked about you.
I don’t know if that’s what you liked about me. I never knew. I never needed to know, never needed to ask. In my memory there is no me for you to like, no you to do the liking. There is only us. Subatomic particles attached with a force that renders them a single unit. A bond which once broken ushers in the reign of hell, an altered landscape distorting the very cells which make me myself.
My sister says, It’s important to reach out. She said, I know we haven’t been the closest these past couple years, but I’m still your sister. I love and I’m here for you. Always.
I say, I know. I say, Thank you. I think, If I could make you trade places with him I would. Instantly, without question. You wouldn’t deserve it and I wouldn’t be sorry.
With Alice it’s easier to talk. We talk about: contested runic translations, archival access to key ancient spells. The advantages of a Sanskrit incantation and whether information from a kelpie can be trusted. The meta-topography of shades; the Reese-Dawkins projection of human meridiens onto the hyperbolic plane.
Alice has elected to live in a world where our plan will work. Her universe is parchment and ink, tut combinatorics and tau-values, library carrels and the constant company of the certainty that one day the unthinkable will be undone. She moves through days intended to recede into memory made palatable by the absence of your absence, like pacing the rooms in a house in the process of exorcism. Unafraid of the thing that’s there that’s not really there, because one day it will be gone and she will resume her life unhaunted. Alice says, My mother knows someone at Mountain College—he might be able to get us access to the restricted session even though we’re unaffiliated. She says, I couldn’t sleep last night so I went back to my notes on the Athenian palimpsest and I found something that might be interesting. She says, Look at this—it’s a rough sketch but you can see that the arc, it doesn’t measure as much as Nestor’s formula would predict.
I can’t touch the future she’s so sure of, but I like to feel her belief like the halo of a candle flame on a cold night. Inadequate except when it’s close enough to burn, but better than shivering in the darkness alone. I wish that I could diagram the places we interlocked, that I could reduce our connection to its component parts. Map out our footprints crossing the city and the years, measure the curvature of our jokes and our rivalry and our care and our resentment and our fights and the nights we fell asleep knowing tomorrow would come and we would still belong to each other if no one else. The tangent of the angle between two people opposite and adjacent, always. But the value spills over; we will not be contained. Only the mathematics of the untameable offer a model—the curve rocketing upwards towards where the limit that does not exist will finally be reached. That place which is the infinite, unknown and ungraspable, like death.
I keep thinking: where was it? The moment I could have stopped you. It must have come and I missed it. Which blood-soaked night or bleary morning? Where did you come across two roads diverged and choose the one that led into darkness? What did you think you were choosing: to leave what you could no longer hold or to go where you would no longer have to be the person holding it? Why did you want to go where I couldn’t follow? And did it look to you like a new direction or was it only the same dirty path that had so often tugged at the edges of your vision before. That siren call you would never quite admit to hearing until—you would never admit it. But I knew, didn’t I? Didn’t I know where your feet would lead you if you stopped being careful? Didn’t I know about the wind always threatening to blow your ship off-course? Didn’t I know how easy it was for you to lose sight of true north? Didn’t I swear that I would always be your compass?
I don’t understand how it is that I knew you like I knew my body, like I knew my childhood or the taste of my voice in my own mouth, and it still wasn’t enough.
Sometimes Eliot and I get greedy. We pry at each other like carrion birds on a corpse pecking for still-warm flesh. I tell him about the child you were; he tells me about the man you became. Could have been. Were turning into. I say that you were shy, and funny, and loyal, and smart; the only one who could keep up with me where it mattered, the two of us ensconced in a private galaxy whirling faster than the other kids could even see. A little bit dreamy, a little bit mean. He says you were kind, and gentle, and a good father. He says that you loved to work in the garden and watch your son play under the trees. He says that you kept your hair long even when gray started streaking through it, and in later years your knee ached in the winter but you rarely complained. He says you were happy.
When we talk like this we are very drunk. If we weren’t I couldn’t bear it. If I had to listen to this sober I would never forgive him for showing me what it feels like to know that somewhere it came to pass that the joy I knew was inside you finally blossomed into the light and it was never mine.
Sometimes I want to tell you this most of all: I knew it. I knew all along. I knew and I told you. I was right, you fucking asshole. I knew. I knew you could get there, someday, on the other side of your barbed-wire heart. I knew you could weave your love and your wonder and your sweetness and your wit and your strength and your courage and your quicksilver mind into a self that could pass through the world with the grace of sparrows in the air. I knew you could claim the ease that was your birthright. I wouldn’t have loved you if you were what you thought yourself to be. You were so much closer than you ever knew. If you had waited a little longer—if you had just fucking listened to me—
My sister says, It’s not your fault.
But I know it is.
It’s summer and you are still gone. In Riverside Park spring flowers have fallen and the canopy stretches south thick and green; the Hudson glistens under the late setting sun. I haven’t been back but the other day I walked into a coffee shop and Modest Mouse was playing and I had to leave. Had to stand on the sidewalk smoking and telling you: That song came on when I was getting coffee, the one you loved. Remember, we used to play it in the car with the windows down after I got my license and feel alive and very grown-up. Do you remember feeling alive? I know it hurt. It hurts me too. I don’t think you ever really believed that. Now more than ever when every corner holds your ghost or the echo of your laugh or a song that you loved splitting open my chest. But it hurt before that. It hurt when you were here.
It hurt to love you. Of course it fucking hurt to love you. But that never meant what you thought it should mean. It never meant anything about you. It just meant: I was a person. People hurt. The heart is a muscle easily wounded. But it keeps beating, blow after blow.
Yours did too, until it didn’t. Sometimes I think it’s not any more complicated than that.
But then what does that leave me to do?
Eliot says Margo is worried. I tell him my sister is too. I tell him I don’t give a shit. I tell him I don’t want to let go. I don’t want to feel better, I don’t want to move on. I want to fix this. I will fix this or I will die trying. If I spend fifty years working at this and nothing else I won’t be sorry. I tell him Alice says she thinks she found something in Brussels; I’m joining her there next week. He says he might join us. I don’t really care if he does.
In a few months the leaves will shine crimson and gold and I will learn what else I know without you that I never wanted to carry alone. The sunlight will narrow pale under clouded skies; the streets will fill with the ordinary death that means time is passing. Not for me, though. For me it will be April and you will be dead. For me the city will smell like rain and like flowers that aren’t there. I will sit in a library like Dickens’s abandoned bride, who never married but made herself a widow through a grief so strong it was almost like magic. The woman who knew if you made your life a tomb you would never have to live without the one you loved. I will take notes and make lists and read until sleep claims me and I will say to the air, You would have loved the architecture of this spell. I will say, Do you remember how easy it was to drink black coffee on a green bench and laugh about something rude? When you come back it will be just like that. I will say, Just little longer; it won’t be long now, and the day that it becomes true will make bearable all the times I lied. I will not hope; I will not pray. I will work and I will remember. I will walk back into the sunlight with you or not at all.