Romeo and Juliet by Hans Makart, circa 1870
In the fall, I smell the leaves as they begin to turn. The yellows, tart as a lemon wedge. The reds, sharp as cinnamon. The oranges, heavy with the bitter muskiness of saffron. These leaves—even their dying holds a promise.
I could see the coming of the season in you, then. A crispness in the way you walked, a calm in your smile, an easing in the touch of your fingertips against my cheek. I could see it in the few weeks before the first stab of color showed itself on the slight ridge beyond the house, before the thin smoke telling of the hunter’s fire ribboned above the trees, before the first glazing of frost. Do you think somehow that has changed?
Remember that evening at Carlita’s Grill, sitting on the patio, the July air heavy and thick as wool? We were drinking Mexican beers. Flossie and Bill were there. Crutch and that weird girl from Tuscaloosa he dated for a while. Amy and Sean. Mando Dave, too. Planning the trip to the Keys, laughing. Everything as it should be, the way we imagined it would always be. More beers and the meal came, slowing the conversation. The hot air moved just so as the sun went down and offered a hint of coolness. Remember? I loved the way the buttery light of dusk filtered through the fake palms, the way it settled, not on you, but gathered around you.
You are angry with me still.
On your first trip to Europe, you viewed everything through the harsh, new lens of this country. Soon enough, that disappeared and you drank it in, the aged aloofness, the weary determination, everything. After the sunset on the Arno, walking back to the hotel, we discovered that little basement bar where the German band played American rock and roll. They let you sing “Blue Suede Shoes” and I watched everyone watching you, but you looked only at me. The next afternoon, with the red tiled roofs of Florence slanted below us, snapping pictures from the Duomo’s campinale, I moved near the railing. The wind lifted my hair, I could smell bread baking below, and my weightless stomach felt tethered to the breeze. I could feel it pulling me away from the safety of the Basilica, teasing me, daring me. “Let’s jump,” I said. “We’ll be famous, like Juliet and Romeo,” I said. You laughed and kissed me. “Easier than all those stairs back down,” you said, “but Romeo and Juliet were stupid kids, they didn’t know what it means to love, not really. Let’s avoid the cliché and buy a bottle of wine.” That bottle of chianti survived three moves, the little apartment on Sutton, the duplex on Ash, and finally, when we moved into our house, we opened it. It was better suited for salad dressing than celebration by then. Remember?
You’ve taken the pictures from the wall, but now the empty space frames your guilt.
We came home that day and your sullenness strained to mask your frustration—with me, with yourself, with the doctors, with things you could not control no matter how desperately you wanted to. I had no words to improve your silence. The screen door slammed when you went out to the porch, sudden and sharp as a surgeon’s knife. From the window, I watched you there. You looked skyward, I followed. There, on the tip of a pine at the far edge of the yard, the red-tail hawk perched, her head tilted downward and fixed, scanning the hedge row on the far side of the road. In an instant, she rifled toward the earth, quiet as a shadow, and disappeared into the thick of the hedge row before rising, a rabbit kicking in her talons. The rabbit squealed and you flinched. The animal shrieked once more, once more you flinched, but you never looked away. I could have gone to you, touched the soft lines around your eyes, told you that I, too, was afraid, that we are all afraid, and I could have asked you to hold me, but I didn’t. It was enough that I knew you’d never look away.
I was angry, too.
I never told you this, never told anyone, but one night, my grandmother came to me in a dream. She sat on the end of the bed, playing the old Maybelle Carter song, “Wildwood Flower,” on her guitar. Her fingers didn’t move across the strings, but the notes rang true and confident. She appeared with such physical certitude—her weight creased and slanted the mattress, she carried the scent of a pound cake baking with her—that I questioned, not the mystery of her appearing, but the how of it. In that moment of forming the question, I sensed a spooling back through time that did not begin or end with me and her. Rather, it threaded beyond that, beyond the world I knew of her, of the world she knew before me, of this place before the trees grew and the rains fell and the mountains pushed up from the seas. Before, and before that, a vastness so deep, so complete it was too much to transcend, to even imagine, and yet there she was. Through it all, Granny Jenkins had come to me. I tried to speak, but had no words. Again the question, how? And then I knew. You were right. Romeo and Juliet didn’t know what it means to love.
Hold fast to those pictures and soon I will come to you. I will come to you.
Kevin Winchester is a North Carolina native and author of the short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Tin House, Barrel House, Storysouth, and the anthology Everything But the Baby. In 2005, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference awarded Kevin their Work Study Scholarship. He is currently the Director of the Writing Center at Wingate University where he also teaches Creative Writing. Winchester recently won the 2013 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award.
Read an interview with Kevin here.
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