A February pop-up — a story of love and writing by Daniel Craig Roche.
2008 was the year the number sixteen appeared on my birthday cake. A flame flickered above the number one and another danced on top of the number six. I couldn’t think of a decent wish, but everyone stared at me.
My friend Kathy sat across from me, her beautiful but sad eyes squinting at me from the other side of her thick glasses. Without saying a word, she forced me to make a wish that mattered, so I took in a deep, meaningless breath and blew the candles out. Small strings of smoke rose into the air and disappeared, much like the years those candles represented.
After the party, everyone left and Kathy stopped to talk to me before walking home. “What did you wish for?” she asked.
I wished for her to be happy, but of course she couldn’t know that. Her sad eyes would erupt into tears if she knew how I saw her.
“If I tell you, it won’t come true.”
That seemed to satisfy her. She wished me a happy birthday and walked home.
My dad took me into the yard to watch the meteor shower that night. He let me drink a beer with him while tiny sparks of light streaked across the sky. The dark blue looked like the plate I ate my birthday cake on. It surrounded the moon in a cloudy mist that disappeared where the stars took over. Everything looked so big, making me feel small yet somehow important.
“You should take a picture,” Dad told me. His voice sounded distant even though he sat right next to me. “This is a big day. You’ll want to remember it.”
I snapped a picture with my phone. When I looked at it, everything seemed wrong. The stars weren’t there, and the moon lost its surrounding clouds of dark blue and purple. The picture looked more like a flashlight submerged in murky water than it did a vast universe harboring unknown worlds.
“It doesn’t even look like the same sky,” I said.
Dad sipped his drink. “A picture never does justice to the real thing.” He inhaled through his nose and I watched his chest expand. “Breathe deep,” he said. “Take a sip of your beer. Let your senses do the remembering for you.”
The sweet night air cooled my lungs but the beer tasted bitter. Maybe I didn’t like the taste as much as Dad. When he wasn’t looking, I dumped it out behind my chair.
Ditching my drink didn’t help. Something about the moment felt wrong. Holding the phone in my hand, I saw an image on the screen peering out from a three-inch window. Another spark flew underneath the moon, and I was glad my beer was empty.
2008 was also the year I learned how to drive. Dad handed me the keys one Saturday morning and told me to drive him to the diner. It became a ritual for the next six months. The endless pavement rolled underneath the car’s white hood. Dad and I enjoyed breakfast alone some Saturdays, but Kathy came for the ride most of the time. She started walking across the yard early almost every week just to meet us in the driveway. She still wore her thick reading glasses and she still needed to squint to see through them.
Kathy liked to quote book passages on our rides to the diner.
“Do you know who wrote that?” she’d ask from the back seat. I’d shrug my shoulders and notice her sitting back with her arms crossed. “You should read more,” she’d say. Kathy loved to tell me that, and she loved staring out the window afterwards, as though bored by my ignorance.
Books dominated Kathy’s life. Many people our age played video games or watched television. They looked at books as one might look at a chore. I wondered how books could be so bad when girls like Kathy ruined their eyes just to stare at them all day. “Reading is my escape,” she once told me. I could only guess what she meant by that, since she never let me visit her at home.
“Why do you need an escape?” I asked.
Her sad eyes welled up with tears, so I never asked again.
Making Kathy smile became a priority. Because of her, I worked extra hard in English class, writing happy stories and poems when the teacher gave me an assignment, and Kathy would listen to me read them then sit back with her arms crossed. She stared out the window in the classroom, much like she did on our Saturday morning car rides. I thought, one day I’ll get her to lean forward and watch me instead of the window. One day, I’ll be her escape.
Words were like particles to me back then, small things I could piece together to capture nature’s beauty. For me, writing was better than photography, because words floated around my head until the unseen hand of God put them in their proper order. I liked watching all those meaningless words come together into a sentence and form complex molecules with the twist of my pencil. The night sky went from an image on my phone to a vast universe that stretched onto the page like the shooting stars that fell on my birthday.
In 2009, I gave up writing about the universe because the words never fit together right. I stuck with all the cliché subjects, like teenage angst and love. I wrote about those things for fear of ruining the unknown world I cared about.
My English teacher asked us to write a description of someone we knew. Saturday morning came, and I chose to write about Kathy. She had her shoulder turned towards me most of the time, her eyes cast out the window. I made observations without her knowing it. Her hair looked blonde in places when the sun hit it, and sometimes the eyes behind her glasses shone with moist sadness. Some days they looked black and empty, but held my attention just the same. My words never captured how beautiful she looked, but my pencil captured who I thought she was — how I wanted her to be. We saw each other almost every day, and I still found her mysterious.
Kathy lived a couple houses down, so I saw her almost every day. She finally got laser surgery that reduced the thickness of the glasses she wore. She read everything I wrote and always leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms afterward.
“Write about me,” she told me one day. “I want to know how you see me.”
I never told her about my English assignment. She’d see it as an insult and scoff at me, making me wish I’d never chosen to write about her in the first place.
Because of Kathy, I thought teenage girls were the hardest people to please. She eventually grew agitated with me and stopped asking me to write about her. She even stopped coming to the diner with me and stopped sitting near me in class. She rarely left her house, which was odd, considering her need for constant escape. The sorrow in her eyes leaked into the rest of her body, her shoulders slouched and she walked around with her head down, staring at the ground as she made her way through the school’s halls.
I spotted her rummaging through her locker one day. “What’s your problem?” I asked.
It wasn’t fair that she expected me to answer her question without answering mine first, so I did something terrible.
I walked away from her.
About a month went by and I wished she would talk to me again, but I was too shy to approach her again. One time I caught her attention and mistook her wide eyes as an invitation, but she returned her gaze to the window. I learned to stop watching her after that. She was impossible, so I gave up trying to make her happy.
Teenage boys are much simpler. We’re so easy to please. Take me, for instance. I just wanted to be with a girl and hold her hand.
I learned that younger girls didn’t like to talk about writing as much, so they were the ones I dated. They’d sit in my car with me while shooting stars zoomed through my body, then they’d lean in and kiss me. I refused to talk about writing with them.
One girl noticed my open notebook in the backseat of the car. “You write?” she asked. I placed my lips on hers before she could ask again.
Another girl took me by the hand and asked me to join her on the hood of my car. “Watch the stars with me, “she said.
I felt the churn of a twirling galaxy. The stars framed the black hole like a pair of thick reading glasses. The light stopped bending when she touched me. The moon was just a moon, and the clouds around it just gray wisps of cotton.
I couldn’t deny it any longer. I was in love, and not with the girl who lay next to me.
After that night, I tried writing about the universe again. The words flowed from me as though breathing out from my lungs. I scared myself and remembered why I stopped writing about it. Even if my tears dripped onto the paper, writing felt like taking something that didn’t belong to me, then screwing it up by piecing the wrong words together. Instead, I wrote about a smile I’d never witnessed stretched upon the face of a girl I thought I knew. The words looked pretty but none of it compared to a real smile. When I finally admitted that I could never write the sound of a young girl’s heart bursting with love, I put my pen and paper away.
Kathy walked across the yard one day because she read a book and the main character reminded her of me. She apologized for being so stubborn.
“I guess we have that in common,” I said. “I’m sorry, too.” I stuck my hand out for her to shake, but she shoved it aside and hugged me instead.
The shooting stars came back and wouldn’t go away. They persisted even when I felt her warm tears fall on my shoulder. I guess she was trying to ignore them, too.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded. “I am now.”
I don’t know what caused her to outgrow her awkward rebellion against me, but we both realized we could talk to each other about everything. We began spending every day together. Since she seemed so upfront and honest, I never asked her why she stopped talking to me. I was afraid to know.
Kathy was a mystery, and I decided that’s what I liked most about her.
In the fall of our senior year, we went to the cemetery and sat underneath a tree. We flung acorns into the bushes and talked about old times.
“You still brood a lot,” I told her. “I guess some things never change.”
She laughed at that. “Some things are best left untouched,” she said. “You changed, though. You were so different back then. I remember you always carried a notebook with you.”
I tried a smile, but the memories of having a pencil in my hand crept up on me. The black, star strewn world inside my head once forced my fingers into motion, endlessly plowing through the page with soft strokes of silver-gray. I missed it.
“You were always into writing,” Kathy carried on. “Do you still do it?”
“Not for a long time.” I tried forcing the memory of bitter beer from my head, but sparks lit across my black sky. “No one cares about writing, Kathy.”
“You care,” she said. “You always cared.” She flung another acorn and turned away from the woods. Her hand fell on my arm, and her sad eyes peered at me through the rim of her glasses. “I still want you to write about me. I want to know how you see me.”
Believe me, I wanted to write about her. I wanted to do everything for her, I just didn’t know how.
Kathy wasn’t like the younger girls, the ones who took me by the hand and asked me to sit on my hood with them. She was so much more. I wished I could find a way to tell her that.
That afternoon I contemplated love, because I didn’t know if I was in love with Kathy or with the way she made me view the world around me.
I did know that I enjoyed watching her play.
She climbed the tree like a little girl and swung her feet out from underneath a large branch. Her arms stretched out and plucked acorns from the leaves and tossed them down at me, then I caught a glimpse of laughter from behind her glasses. She climbed farther up as though nothing could ever hurt her, or maybe she believed I would always be there to catch her should she fall.
I lay on my back and saw her move farther away from me, into the darkening sky where the colorful leaves swirled down to meet her. I heard her body moving with the wind, dancing with the leaves, and I wondered if I’d ever feel free enough to enjoy the world like she did in that moment.
Why couldn’t I learn how to surround the moon? If not for her, then for the shooting stars.
I didn’t lie to her about not writing, but I still kept a notebook in the back seat of my car. Every now and then I’d flip through the pages and imagine them filled with the universe, then a lump would rise in my throat. When I saw falling leaves, full moons or a pair of sad eyes, I felt a longing that would bring guilt along with it. All these beautiful things that could never belong to me.
A week after that afternoon in the cemetery, I could still close my eyes and see the leaves twirling through Kathy’s outstretched arms. My jealousy turned to anger when I saw all the things I loved moving with her — for her. She continued walking across my yard to meet me, and I would let her, despite her far-away stares, despite her crossed arms, and despite the ease with which she drew the entire universe into the palm of her hands.
She walked across my yard the day before Thanksgiving. She brought the year’s first snow with her. I watched the small flakes of white dance around her, much like the fall leaves in the cemetery. Everything moved when she moved. Seasons changed for her.
We sat in my car and our breath fogged the windows. She couldn’t stare outside anymore, only at me.
“I want you to write me,” Kathy said. Her arms were crossed to protect herself from the cold. I knew because she didn’t lean back in her seat. She leaned toward me, so I used my finger to write on the windshield.
Brooding, bossy, persistent.
She read the words and leaned closer. “I’m serious,” she said. “Write about me. What are you so scared of?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I just don’t care to write anymore. I don’t have anything good to say.” That was the first time I lied to her. My lips were thieves, stealing from the universe. It felt unnatural and awful. I remembered the snowflakes and the leaves, her joy when throwing acorns at me and how easily it all came to her.
I hated the way beauty moved with her, like she didn’t even try. Maybe Kathy deserved my dishonesty.
She held her phone out and pulled me toward her. “Don’t,” I said, then I heard the camera click. I blinked into her smiling face and waited for her to show me the picture.
“I’ll show you when you write about me,” she said.
I thought about what the picture might look like. If the colors would do justice to the real thing.
She fumbled with some buttons. “Which filter should I use?”
“Black and white,” I told her.
Her eyes scanned the picture as she scrolled through the samples.
“Black and white,” I said again.
She looked at me, and a sadness formed behind her glasses. “Fall leaves, summer grass. What good is a picture without colors?”
“Black sky. White stars, white moon. ”
She fumbled with some more buttons.
“Show me,” I said, growing agitated.
She used her finger to write on the windshield. ‘I’ll show you when you write about me.’ She signed her name underneath it and told me to do the same.
“You’re asking me to sign a contract with you?”
She placed her phone in her pocket and nodded. I don’t know why that picture felt so important. Maybe it was the smile on her face the moment she took it. I wanted to see her face that way again, aglow with joy and mischief, so I signed my name on the windshield, right next to hers. We had a deal.
Days passed and I still didn’t know what to write.
Gray clouds covered the blue sky and the cold wind blew snow across the grass. The haze of warm days removed itself from the air and painted a crisp picture of the stars above me. The air grew thin and cold when Kathy came to me a few days later.
“I still have that picture of us,” she said. “Did you write about me yet?”
“No,” I admitted.
She didn’t even flinch. “Let’s go back to the cemetery.”
By then the grass was stiff and it crunched beneath our feet. I wanted to lie down and freeze into the ground forever, then Kathy said, “Look.” She placed her phone in my hand and showed me the picture of her and me, black and white, sky, stars and moon. She left me standing there and walked toward our tree with her hair floating underneath a pink wool cap.
My eyes drew themselves to the palm of my hand, which held the picture of Kathy and me. I looked so far away with my jaw clenched tight, eyes dark. A hoodie cast a shadow along the sides of my face, hiding me from the world. Then there was Kathy, her white teeth contrasting with the eternal blackness in her eyes.
I wanted to crush the phone under my boot. All the shades of gray looked perfect. My face lost and agonized, but she made me beautiful. I thought of clouds, moon cotton of blue and purple. Then it started to rain. A cold drip rolled down the back of my neck, and another landed on Kathy’s phone, right underneath her grinning mouth. I could see its rounded edges, as eternal as the universe itself, then it tugged me back to that night with my dad, sipping beer and watching tiny sparks explode against the sky. In my mind I tasted the drink and loved the bitterness of it. Then I heard my dad’s voice, so far away in the wide open darkness.
‘A picture never does justice to the real thing.’
As I recalled the two candles from my sixteenth birthday, I realized the tiny dancing flames weren’t something that died away with a single breath. Fire isn’t something that had to end in smoke, it simply changed shape and floated away.
The rain came down harder. Kathy climbed the tree, laughing, her legs dangling. I paused, because I realized what she’d been trying to tell me. The stars, the leaves, snow and rain, even the fire, all raced towards the same place in time, because Kathy didn’t want me to simply write about her. She wanted to know how much I loved her.
Several frozen drops slid down my neck and woke me from my trance. It became clear that the tree carrying Kathy reached up toward the great sky that stretched over everything I knew and loved, and I could never let that escape from me again.
Another raindrop fell on the picture, but this one came from my eye, falling from the great big sky that lived inside my head. I slid the phone into my pocket.
“Kathy!” I ran to escape the falling rain and made my way over to her. “I want to write you,” I said. “I’m ready to show you how I see you!”
The wind picked up until cold bullets pelted against my skin. I raised my arms and lifted myself into the branches. My body wanted to be somewhere beautiful. The glow in Kathy’s face, the playful smile of her eyes, the relentless attention from the cold rain and the hollow roar of the wind. I had everything I needed but a pencil and paper. I would write from the universe in her eyes and describe the world exactly as she saw it. The oceans would breathe her name until she leaned into me with her arms uncrossed, waiting to fly above the trees. And if she never chose to love me I would still write for her everyday, because the night sky spread out inside of me and all my shooting stars fell for her.
“I want to write you,” I said again, my voice cracking while Kathy’s legs kept dangling. She found an acorn and plucked it from the tree, then flung it at me and laughed as the stars and the fire, the wind and the rain all closed in around us with the stroke of an invisible pencil, trapping us inside that perfect moment forever.
Daniel Craig Roche is a New England native with over thirty short stories, poems and memoirs published in both online and in print magazines, including “Ariel Chart” and “YARN.” His novel, “Corpse Lily,” is due for release in 2019 (Rhetoric Askew Publishing.) Learn more about him and his creative work at danielcraigroche.wordpress.com