the space between

words lily James  |  images lily james & alexandra von arx

Would living be easier if, when we died, our bodies evaporated into the ether along with our souls?

Can you love someone when all you have of them are memories that are eroding day by day, breath by breath? Those faint shouts from the past that force you to grow ever more doubtful that you can trust?

I’ll keep putting you together from those memories.

I start with your arms. Long and muscled, with that tattoo on the inside of your right bicep that I first spotted when we sat together in UCSC’s dining hall on the third day of camp. You were pointing out over the soccer fields towards the school’s logo on the scoreboard. I watched the ink ripple as you imitated the undulations of the cartoon banana slug, making the rest of the counselors laugh. I tried to read the Latin wording as you tried to catch my eye. Your arm fell to your side and I looked back at my plate. It was the first time we missed each other.

Then there are your feet, pounding barefoot across the California sand, chasing the campers who were screaming with delight, ducking under your water balloons and looking up at you with those eyes I wished they had for me. You dunked them in and out of the water as disgruntled surfers paddled around you. When I stood to initiate a similar game with my own group, I stepped on a bee. I limped across the beach away from my campers as my toes started to swell up and you took my foot gingerly in your hands and pulled out the stinger. I can’t remember if I managed not to cry.

Your voice, slurring to me as we walked back from The Redroom in downtown Santa Cruz. The night, like every one of that summer, filled my ears with the screeching of tires and the moans of people believing that they were getting exactly what they wanted. We wandered past homeless people sprawled along Pacific Avenue. One of them had a fish tank propped next to the crate that he was resting his head on, with a small blue beta floating resignedly in it. We walked all the way to the boardwalk and sat on a stranger’s car. The lights from the roller coaster and surrounding shops washed out the beach and sucked the sounds of the waves into a vacuum. I rested my head on your shoulder as you leaned in to kiss me. Our foreheads knocked together and the sudden burst of the high beams from a passing sedan toppled us from our perch.

Days later, your forehead knotted in anxiety as we lay among the redwoods at dawn, high, as you told me that you had to leave the camp in a few days. We stared into the trees, confused and anxious, in a puddle of half-hallucinations, until the darkness retreated completely into shadows beneath our bodies.

That space between the distant past and the past. The minutes and miles that suck the finer details from my brain like a leech. Five years worth of minutes. Continents worth of miles.

What remains?

Your shoulders: broad, archetypal, masculine. Your shirt hung confidently from them even as the sweat adhered it unpleasantly to your back. Beads of sweat clung to my arms as I stepped off the bus and into the sweltering heat. The bus stop was crowded with Thai commuters and the roar of bus horns as they tried to dissipate the crowd. Geckos skittered across the whitewashed walls. Coconuts with plastic straws were strewn across the curb. I saw your shoulders balancing you against a poster exalting the praises of Yingluck Shinawata. They sealed me back into you.

I wrapped my hands around your waist as you drove me around Chanthaburi on your motorbike. The darkness claimed most of that night, except for your waist. Tense, fearful.

We stood by the lake. Your hand shook as it reached to grab mine in a quick, uncertain jerk. We didn’t realize that we had stopped walking. Was the air still hot or had we turned it cool?

Back to a beach, looking out onto the Gulf of Thailand. The back of your head was wet, dripping salt water down your back. Your hair was longer. I followed its trail down the nape of your neck, where it tapered off into fine, thin, dark fuzz. I imagined the hairs struggling to break the surface of your skin.

How did that conversation go?

“Your words.”

“My words.”

“I miss you.”

“My regret.”

“My need.”

“I feel.”

“I feel.”

Your breath as it burst onto my cheek as you turned me to face you. But where are your eyes? The rest of your face? Your teeth, your nose, the curve of your jaw—the tattoo, on the right or left arm? Were your fingernails always so long? Were you speaking in a higher pitch than normal? Are you taller than me? What do you smell like?

“I love you.”

Farther away. More miles. More memories sloughed from the recesses of my brain. Day by day, Hour my hour. Step by step.

You’re still there, tucked away, sustained by those last words. But is it really you? How much of you is substituted for how I want you to be, what I wish I was, what I hoped we could be? When do I declare you a victim of time? When does love become confused for hope, insecurity, or fear?

We’ll always be on a beach, looking out over the waves, the darkness creeping in and blasts of light threatening to wash us away.

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