I’m Sorry To Inform You There Will Always Be Songs Like This – Christian Winn

Some days you remember how you met her. On a Thursday, down off 1st Avenue in Belltown, at the Watertown, this bar in the warehouse district you and your best undergrad boys have just turned urbane enough to find intriguing, irresistible.

This song is playing – all angst, trouble, love, honesty — this song they will go on to reboot and trot out for so goddamn many chain-store, diamond-studded Rolex, winding-mountain-road-cross-sport commercials in the years to come that no way anyone — not your new young wife, your first-marriage kids, your students, your staid neighbors, not even yourself most of the time anymore — can access the balled-up thrill of just listening, bouncing, swaying amidst the hot, radiant crowd, young and half-drunk and this perfect new song you’ve heard once, maybe twice, scrolling out to set the tone for what, every time you will hear it after this night for many, many years, will allow you to understand that, yes, because of this song playing, life, it will, everything will, be alright, right?

This song is playing when she comes right up to you, like girls rarely do, and she takes your hand. She is tall, cat-eyed, short black hair, blood-red lipstick. Severe, confident in a manner that makes you feel like someone, some thing — new.

Five strides and you are, you’re sure now, doing some awkward tiptoe, step and spin dance. But whatever, this is everyone’s dance this year, and she doesn’t seem to mind.

The air is clove cigarettes, beer-spill. The song drums, clatters. You make eyes. Dance. She dances with you. Think, I’m dancing, we’re dancing, in a club, in a city, on a weeknight, like people, adults, do.

A joy you will always remember precisely unspools within your chest. A warm letting go.

Pretty boys and girls crush the dance floor. You press into her, and she cups her arm around the back of your neck, leans to whisper something you can’t quite hear within the rise of the chorus, the high-hat, and all that matters is that she smiles the very biggest smile as she pulls away, pointing, backing toward the edge of the dance floor that you’re sure now will forever stretch endless.

Shut your eyes. The song winds. You spin once, twice. Tick your hips in a last boyish move of hollow confidence, not understanding she isn’t in front of you to be impressed, or not, not understanding as the last three chords strum and pluck to the finish, that you aren’t getting it back, not really, not ever — this song, this pleasant ringing behind your eyes, this glow of citrus and warm breath, cigarette haze shifting beneath the high, slatted ceiling.

You don’t understand yet that this possibility, this certain perfect retreating nascence has you in its long, knuckled grasp and is pulling you into places – years and lives – you haven’t even thought up yet.

Open your eyes in the pause between songs. She is gone. The joyous boys and girls all fleeing the dance floor for the bar.

She is not there. Nor there. There?

Maybe, you think, like you did as a boy late at night in your little pocket of a bedroom, you’ve conjured someone, some wish, to life – this girl, this song – to touch, talk with, tell stories to and about for decades. The wishful life worth living.

You laugh, look down, try to shake the drink from your skull, then look up slowly, and there she is gripping two big glasses of beer. The thrum and crackle of your skin and spirit unfolds, unfolds further.

She hands one pint over, cocking her head toward a front corner table. Got us a spot, she says.

Hey, you say, hey, you’re real, I think, right?

I might be, she says.

You take a mouthful of beer and follow.

Some things get murky from here. You remember her name, but from the start this name is a thing only for you. Her friends crowd the table, smelling redolent with patchouli, soap musk, weed, waxy lip balm, vinegar, baby power. They seem adult in a new manner, of the city, the world, talking Kafka, Gide, Plath, Didion – names you pretend to know. They wear frayed jeans, safety-pin earrings, wry and crooked grins, eyes flitting, mouths full of new words.

It will be short years later that you realize the act of it all, those friends — their fragile construct, the props they use, and how they have you fooled, or maybe not fooled, but dismayed, and you’re just drunk enough to want what they have — pop culture knowledge, import vinyl and CD collections, fuck-all confidence, pony-hair shoes, bolo ties, outsider philosophies, girls like this girl whose name you now know, songs like this song.

It will be years beyond that first realization, and the gloomy sense of weakness that follows it, that you will understand how necessary they are — the girl, the night, the song, the cloister descending upon you. No matter how strange and shitty some things will turn out, in the end you will be grateful for the shove and tumble of all that is happening, now, right now.

Because, come on, I mean here you are, all pressed and scrubbed clean. Pretty boy. Full of clumsy wanting. Straight-nosed. Clear eyed. Hoping hard not to be.

Then you are at the table beside her — ignoring your boys out in the club somewhere because how can they matter now — another pitcher ordered, her palm at your knee and thigh beneath the table, then you reach for hers as she leans in to lick your earlobe, her friends telling you with their still-flitting eyes how impressive that move is and that she, their beautiful girl, she so rarely falls this way, or for guys like you, and this is cool, but not super cool because she was theirs first.

Near closing the DJ plays the song once more, as you and the girl stand, walk to the Japanese sedan your parents gave you for your 21st.

You drive up the hill to the rented art studio she works and lives in. She feeds you bagel chips and hummus. She uncorks a fat bottle of red. There is a city and bay view if you stand at the corner window. So, you stand at the corner window, take in the docked ferry boats, the glassy blur of the shipyards south. She asks you questions — family, film, music, girlfriends — and you mostly lie. You don’t need to ask her questions. She has answers to all you need.

She tastes like garlic, smoke, salt on boiled eggs, sugar cubes. Later, you will wonder what she thinks you taste and feel like beneath her. Or if she’s even ever thought of you this way at all.

Morning. White-blue light crashes loud through leaded glass and a thin green curtain. You lay within it, your skin and eyes humming as she sleeps against your chest softly snoring.

Soon enough one of the friends from the night before shows up to use the studio, he says, for his new block-print triptych. He holds two tall paper coffee cups, and the same wry smirk as he steps in feigning he doesn’t see you.

You dress beneath the futon covers without words.

She sits up, says his name, asks what time it is, what is he doing, oh, you brought coffee, you saint.

He doesn’t answer, and kneeling now on that lumpy cotton you lean in with your sour, furred-up mouth and kiss her – on the lips, holding, holding, expecting her to pull away, embarrassed or to say fuck you, I do this shit all the time college boy. But, she doesn’t pull away, she leans in, too, and she doesn’t pull away.

And this, this will be enough — for 112 days.

The rest, with she and you – sex, coffeeshops, absinthe, imported cigarettes, weekends in B.C., boredom misnamed as ennui, old friends replaced with new, even some half-baked poetry writing — happens.

She changes you. Or, for a long time you think she’s the thing that changes you – and that you are lucky, a better human because of it.

But, moving forward, you play yourselves out. I mean, maybe you’re in love, but even if you are, it’s an awkward mismatch. You are tourists in each other’s worlds. Her friends never quite trust you — you play basketball four times a week, you visit your parents each weekend on the east side, you’re thinking maybe law school in a couple of years.

Your friends — the ones who stay close — don’t trust her not to be laying down with her art-school girls and boys any night you and she don’t hang. They despise the goatees and hand-rolled cigarettes and the soft, pale skin reaching from beneath goth-band t-shirts heralding concerts those poseurs never attended.

So, one night she and you have the talk. At your favorite coffee shop up on the hill. The talk is frank, and not nearly as sad as it seems it should be for your first real, adult breakup.

It’s best, you decide. This — you wave your hands toward and away from each other — was never quite right, you say. But … she says, touching your high cheek, I like you, I have always really, really … maybe even loved you.

You take her hand, and say, yes, thank you, here. You hand her an envelope swelling with the long, frank break-up letter signed love always, and seven poems you’ve written her over the last months.

Just some things I wrote you, you say, read ‘em if you want.

She takes the envelope. Of course I will, dummy, she says. Here, she says, handing over two CD jewel boxes. The actuality of the term mixed tape is already dead, she says, but mixed CD sounds all awkward in your mouth, so … two mixed tape CDs … with original pen and ink drawings of a bunch of stuff we did, by yours truly.

She opens one of the jewel boxes — bright white paper, thick black gorgeous lines of ink. Scenes of you and her neatly blocked across the space.

There’s us dancing, she says, a wry, easy smile rising. That night. And the bonfire, at that beach on San Juan, smoking out.

She reaches with her pinky, giggling, and…that’s your bare ass, she says, from the stairwell, remember?

I’ll never forget, you say.

And you don’t.

You don’t forget, not really, but all this other life happens — wife, firm, children, fuck-all — and for a long time she doesn’t come to mind often, though more so the summer your marriage exhales, flattens out dully, dies.

You find yourself one July dawn recognizing the sunrise chasing through your master bedroom’s back window. Your wife rolls over, tucks into you, choking tiny snores, and there that one long-gone morning is, and you and she in it.

You still have the mix-tape CDs she made you, somewhere, you’re sure of it, but it takes you a couple of days to unearth them from one of the four or five nostalgia boxes in the root cellar. When you finally find them — beneath a yellowed, crackling A+ final essay from grad school, and a couple of embarrassing poetry journals from all that time — your heart grips, your palm dampens, and a smile curls as you nod, yes, there you are, you culprits.

Your wife is out with her wine-bar friends, and your daughters are somewhere — a friend’s sleepover? an out of town swim meet? — when you slip the CD into your out-of-date system, pour yourself three fingers of bourbon, snap open a beer, and sit down to listen.

There is that song, of course, which gets you all nervous and optimistic and so fucking happy. But there are other songs, too, all those underground, back-beat, shoe-gaze, goth-sway, mournful gorgeous beasts who were your friends back then, who maybe still are? Days wash, nights scroll, the past is not the past.

Two bourbons in you find some scratch paper near the telephone, a dull-inked pen, and try some words out, try to burrow back — time, after all, what is time but a construct, a wishful manmade ordering, time is not time, right? Right, motherfucker?

You remember. You scribble.

You slip the second CD in, crank the volume, collect another bourbon, scribble some more … until, until … you look up and there is your almost-still-pretty wife standing fragrant above you — hunched, furious with memory.

From the living room a wall of sound rises, swells, and she is pointing, laughing with fresh dark lipstick and wine-stained teeth and she bends at the waist with mirth and perfect honesty as you quickly fold the papers into your breast pocket, wondering just what she thinks you were doing – dabbling in the frivolous act of nostalgia? pretending there are other lives you might have lived? thinking you were something more than a suburban lawyer with a measure of angst? ideating loneliness.

In the morning it’s difficult to decipher many of those words, or quite access their meaning. But, you are glad you have written them, no matter. You find a new quiet place for the jewel boxes, the CDs, and wait for what next.

It’s not two weeks later that an old friend calls. You haven’t talked with him in seven years, though you’ve kept in touch online — dental school, kids, trips to New Zealand, Tasmania, married to a pretty one from undergrad whose had some quality work done.

There is perfunctory small talk — football, basketball, Hermosa Beach spring break eighteen years ago, keggers at Kriley’s place, sunrise at Golden Gardens, even the Watertown comes up.

Then, after a long pause where he feigns one kid or another tugging at his pant leg, he says flatly, remember that girl? What was her name?

You say her name aloud, an action you realize you have not performed since maybe the days just after she and you handed over an envelope, and those CDs.

Well hey, he says. It’s kind of weird to think about … I mean, did you hear?

You’re left eye ticks, quivers above your clenched jaw.

Hear? you say, thinking maybe what falls next will be a good thing — she’s hit the Powerball; she’s landed the lead in a breakout indie film; she’s written a novel, or better, a memoir, with a whole chapter about that time, those 112 days with you, the mismatched beautiful wonder of it all.

but you know better, you know …

Yeah, he says. Sorry, man.

Sorry, you say, as across the miles an echo of a dog barking snaps against your ear. I didn’t hear anything about anything.

It’s in the papers up here, he says, the local news and shit.

And he lays it out.

She was just married. Month ago. To this chick he thinks you hung out with — the short shit-talking one. Weird name. Cute, but damn, apparently she knew how to use a longsword.

There was a fight, he says. The old lover was still on the scene — that dude with the wispy mustache and those stupid clogs, you remember him — kept coming around, wouldn’t stay out of her pants, or vice versa? And the little chick, the new wife, she took them both out, like, ritual style. They couldn’t even show pictures, just legs and a blur, on the news, man.

You set the phone on the kitchen table. Listen to the refrigerator hum, listen to the mail get dropped through the door-slot to the hardwoods. The walls and roof shift with the warming midday. The taste of iron and coffee collapses as a bitter tincture across your teeth.

Hey, dude, you hear from the upturned speaker, you there?

You lift the phone back to your ear, saying, I’m here.

Sorry to be the bearer, man, thought you might not have heard, he says, living in that landlocked backwater and all. He huffs twice, almost giggling, nervous.

You should come out here sometime, you say, it’s an alright place.

Yeah, man, sure, he says. But hey, just so you’re prepped … the fucking Christians, or the conservos at least, are hew and crying the shit out of the case. You’re gonna hear more about it, and her, dude. Their spin is, he loudly whispers, month after same-sex gets passed a wife goes double-murder on a wife and the rightful man in her life.

They’re talking, he says, devolution and come-upins, they’re talking the devil himself, or herself, wielded that sword, or whatever … Sorry. I’m really sorry, man. I know she was something for you, a good thing during all that time … But fuck it, fuck this life, right? Like that one poet said. Ha … Hey, come visit sometime, will you? We miss you out here.

I will, you say, soon.

And after a ten-beat pause, both of you listening to the still-life static of rooms you will never set foot or breathe the air within, you hang up, set the phone back on the polished table and watch the afternoon pass on the other side of your front bay windows.

This news, of course, lingers. By that evening you have it in you to look the story up. And there it is. Reckless. Cartoon.

You do not read the attending articles, the links, the posts, only skim. You do not read the commentary threads. You do not look at the unblurred photos that invent and announce themselves on screen — black blood an unspooling gloss, frayed leather embrace, long bare leg bent west all wrong, burned-down cigarette in upturned palm. It is enough to know it is real.

It is enough, or seems enough, to know this has happened, this is a real thing that has happened, to someone you once knew well, loved, and then did not know at all, ever again.

You write her name neatly in blue on an empty envelope, tuck the folded-up paper, and this thing that happened — to her, to the world, and now maybe to you, too, but yes, to her, wholly to her — into the bottom drawer, beneath the jewel-box CDs. Later, you murmur. One day. I will come back for you.

The next day you hear that song, at the mall, all tinny and weak, a ghost. You are ordering a too-wide, too-greasy, slice of pizza. You over-tip. Leave the mall. Leave the slice uneaten atop the dusty newspaper box near the automatic door and security kiosk.

You do not tell your wife of the story, of your distant part in it, even when it comes on the 10:00 news a few nights later.

Your wife sits beside you on the micro-fiber couch all lathered up with gin and citrus. The pretty newscasters thumbnail the crime. The wife/executioner ducks handcuffed into a squad car. The crime scene is blurred, holds too long. Her healthy young face bursts into the tv corner, smiling pretty in a black dress, short pageboy cut, narrow perfect eyes, so very very.

Then, protesters, anti-protest protesters, misspelled signs, dead-baby signs, pink hats, open-carry Christians, boys kissing boys, students in camo, cops behind matte-black shields, faceless, the glum joy of the anchor woman.

Jesus, your wife says. Get over it, people. One crazy bitch kills another. They were in love, maybe. People in love do all kinds of killing. Read Shakespeare lately? Remember OJ? Manson, Bundy, Dahmer? That astronaut chick who drove cross country wearing a diaper?

Your wife laughs, looks to you like isn’t she funny, irreverent, well-sourced, clever. She holds out her tall glass. You hold out your tall glass. You remember how you used to love, or maybe think you loved, this not-give-a-fuck part of her — the artifice and candor, the shimmer of confidence, arrogance even, in this contract between you, how it made you both disposable and invaluable to each other.

The world is messy, you say, standing to pour a nightcap, saying, she looks familiar, doesn’t she? The one … dead … in the dress.

She looks like your type, your wife laughs.

You stare across the room feeling an unspooling sense of dread.

It’s been a slow, tired division – your wife and you – but after this night, this laughter and head shake and smirk, the divide, the fissure, it quickly broadens.

It’s the missing of points. It’s that your wife never even knew her or those years and words and loves of your life tucked beneath the silt.

She has never quite imagined the other lives you’ve left half-spun.

You take your bourbon to the bedroom, stare at the pages of a memoir your neighbor recommended, quickly fall into something like sleep.

In the morning, memoir unfolded across your chest, you murmur, this is over, I, am sorry, but, yes.

She nods, too, murmurs, yes, over, yes, it’s been over for too long to remember it’s been over, and now I guess we’ve remembered.

She pulls the sheets back, steps out of bed naked but for the ancient, frayed-up World Series t-shirt you gave her that first year – Battle of the Bay, the earthquake series. You reach across, take her just-trembling hand in your just-trembling hand and hold it for long, confusing pulses of the bedside clock.

Handful of years later, and you’re married to that new young wife, your daughters in high school, your finances in order, golf game solid, running some hoops now and again, even doing a little writing on the side — a food column for the alt-weekly in the even smaller city you’ve moved to.

This is when the letters begin arriving. A Tuesday. In August. A heat wave on. 106 degrees. The air conditioning cranked in your home office where you sit alone, answering emails.

Your new wife has a summer camp something with your daughters who at first didn’t trust her, and never actually called her Mom — she was too young, too pretty, too much in love with you — but by her first and middle names, never your last. But, this new wife, she is vibrant and fun, fit, and into so many of the things the girls are — new music and gadgets and apps, trends in food, film, fashion — and now the girls and she are tight, family, bordering on a sisterhood, which you know seems creepy at first glance.

It could be any of the hundreds of days you’ve sat right here, alone, happy, or at least content with the life you have carved. But, it is not any of those days. It is today, the day the letters begin arriving.

You hear the clatter and rattle of the front door’s mail-slot opening, slapping shut, the hush of envelopes drifting to the hardwoods.

Collect the mail, return to your desk. Bills, credit card offer, one slim envelope with your first and middle name scripted by hand neatly, no return address.

Run an index finger over the flap, wondering. The handwriting is reminiscent of your first wife, but not quite. You find your letter opener in the side drawer, slit the top end open, lift and unfold.

Three pages of yellowing paper. Worn at the edges. A heart pencil-drawn on the blank back side of the trifold. You cock you head, wonder at the familiar weight of the unfolding paper.

And there at your fingertips and across your worn oak desk are your words — stanza after stanza, the word love, your name. It is a poem, one of the seven you handed her that last day you ever saw her.

Your face flushes, heart drops and speeds, palms damp. And you read. With wonder. With a hope that maybe, somehow, she is not gone, that she has not been murdered and martyred, vilified, thrown away.

How? you murmur, looking around the room, out the wide bay window. You return to the words, surprised at the earnest flow of many lines, nervy and embarrassed at many of the others, but in the end you are simply astonished by the honesty of what you wanted to express to the girl, and did, what you wanted her to know about you, what you wanted her to keep of you.

There is no note, no explanation, only those three years-gone pieces of paper, and the neatly scrawled poem, words you puzzled together, wishful and generous.

More than an hour passes. You read those words over, over, and finally, in a kind of joyous haze you refold that poem back into its envelope.

You hold the envelope to your chest, wondering who sent this, who found you in this other life, how, why? You are scared. Grateful. Whisper her name and find a safe and secret home for this envelope with the CDs in the dark hollow.

You tell no one — not young wife, daughters, old friends who knew you back then, who knew her, though you think maybe, maybe one day I will.

Six more Tuesdays. A ritual. You at the desk. Mail clattering and hushing to the floor. Wonder and anticipation. Five long strides. One anonymous envelope harboring a construct, an impossible and distant measure of what once was.

Seven weeks. Seven poems. Not one message as to why, or how, or who. Simply what you had given her, now given back.

The final Tuesday.

A long warm afternoon after you receive that seventh poem, your long-abandoned words, there is a sense of gloom, a sense of retreat, as you understand that this is it, this cycle now over.

She is gone. That song, that life, and all you were within it, is gone. The circle traced shut. It is only you here in the hollow, in this house, in this life within this house – a new wife, children who so often these days seem relative strangers, you staring all these years at a world holding silent and largely inaccessible on the bright other side of your wide front windows.

Read the final poem once more, then gather all seven artifacts, the stack of worn and yellowing poems from their dark home in the bottom drawer.

With them you step out into your warm, fragrant backyard. Lay on the tight-mowed lawn. Shut your eyes and listen acutely to the humming bell of silence holding. Smell the neatly folded stack of words and lost emotions, and they all smell like nothing, like less than nothing. So, you simply hold them to your chest, remain still, feel the just-damp grass leach through your shirt, your khaki shorts, across your calves.

Sun and air. The sky a nearly spotless wash. A solitary plane traces its contrail, coasting west so slowly that it’s a shock when it finally reaches the treeline, shudders, disappears, leaves only a bright white smudge broadening, dissipating in the jet stream so many, many miles above.