Like all good stories, she & I began with remembering.
We met in the third grade, her with glasses too big for her face, me buck-teethed & big-haired, all fumbling hands & fleeting heart. Slip-sliding into each other’s lives, fitting together like something true: we slept in the same bed at slumber parties, pushed each other on the swing set, shared crushes & the last slice of pie. Our souls getting to know each other. Understanding each other in this lifetime before either of us knew the music of shattering.
Fast-forward seven years & both of us were growing into our skins. Finding places for our hearts to fit, squeezed between shivering ribs & still singing out their steady rhythms, quiet in this landscape of uncertainty. Still beating in time with one another.
The first time she kissed me was on a bridge overlooking the river after what was not supposed to be a date. I heard violins.
Afterwards she pulled back & said, breathless: did I do that right? I’ve never kissed anyone before.
I said: that was okay, but you could use some more practise. Why don’t we start now?
This is where it all began.
This is where we pressed play.
How easy it is to be deafened by love. Even before now, she & I had been together always, hand in hand through every song—but here was a new kind of melody, one that both of us were eager to memorise. Knees brushing beneath lunch tables. Every phone call ending with I love you. Pictures in frames of kisses on cheeks, & all of the cheesy love songs in the world which suddenly bloomed with meaning.
Perhaps we both knew it was going too quickly, careening off the staff & into ledger lines far above realms either of us could reach. Then again—perhaps it was just me & my infinite, incorrigible tendency to seek out worst-case scenarios. Sitting on my bed in the middle of the night, touching the photographs, listening to our songs. Memorising the sound of this too-new too-fast thing, as if perhaps it could keep me from needing to remember in the aftermath.
Years before we fell in love we would listen to music together, but now it seemed every song was ours to hold. Always sharing earphones. Always listen to this, it reminds me of you. Our music tastes were—are still—miles apart, yet we somehow knew implicitly the songs the other would adore.
Once she called me from the school locker room, sobbing so hard she could barely speak. I ran to her &, before I could understand what I was doing, she had my earphones in her ears, was listening to a playlist I had shared with no one else before. The title in my iPod was For Hurting Days.
The next day she walked up to me & hugged me, tight & soft all at once.
What was that for? I said.
It was for nothing, she said, then paused. Shook her head. It was for everything.
I knew it was coming before it happened. Always alert. Always one ear attuned to the music of breaking.
I texted my best friend the night before, said: I think she’s angry with me.
The next day she came to my house. Sat on the floor of my bedroom as she had so many times before. We listened to Skrillex, & I have always hated Skrillex but I have always loved her, so I did not complain. As I had not so many times before.
When the song ended she turned to me & said, tender & gentle & crueller than anything I have ever heard: I think we should just be friends.
Do you ever think about how a child memorises the cadence of its mother’s voice long before it comes into the world? Do you ever think about how perhaps it has every right to cry upon being born? Like how the voices, the symphonies, are so much easier to grasp when you are not in the thick of all of the extra baggage they come with?
All I can remember of the rest of that day is the way my breath caught in my throat, how she said I’m so sorry like something in her was turning transparent, & how I replied, on autopilot: no, it’s fine, I’m okay. I could hear violins.
She asked if she should leave. I said: that would be good.
She walked out into the living room where my mother was working on her laptop. I am told she looked sadder than my mother had ever seen her before.
The rest of the summer is silent to me. I could not put in earphones without my hands beginning to tremble, drumbeats of sorrow pooling in my chest, too many songbirds in my throat screaming to be released. It is the longest I have ever gone without listening to music.
How easy it is to be deafened by hurting.
I still have the text messages from that summer. Over & over I asked my best friend how I could not have seen it coming, what I could have done to prevent it. And she told me, over & over, that I did see it coming. That I was no less whole for being left behind. That despite all of this sharpness, gathered to my chest & slicing into my ribcage, I could heal. I would heal. I still have the text messages where I argued, lashed out at her, tried so hard to escape my pain that I ended up becoming it.
To be sure, I had broken hearts & gone through heartbreak of my own before—but none as ringing or as clear as this one. Often I wished during that summer that I had never fallen at all. That the first kiss had never happened, that all of this might, perhaps, have been avoided. Sometimes the echoes are so much louder than the memory itself.
I started listening to music again the day before school started. The first song I played was Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? I cried while I listened to it, & it felt like slipping into a familiar skin. Like meeting one’s old self on the street. Like coming home.
These days every song I write has her name woven into it. I can listen to love songs again, but still there is the twist in my gut that refuses to leave. Sometimes I cry, though I despise myself for it, though I have become a master of it’s just allergies or it’s just my contacts or there’s just something in my eye or I just have a cold. I can’t hear Skrillex without wincing, & not for the same reason I used to.
I do not know how to define healing without memory attached to it. I do not know how to define melody without one of my earphones in her ear. I do not know how to define longing without the bone-deep endless ache for one more listen to this, it reminds me of you.
These days my friends know to turn off the radio when one of our songs comes on. I don’t know how long this patience with my hurting will last, but I will keep taking advantage of it until it fades into silence. Too often, I hear violins.
A few weeks after school began, she texted me: I know I hurt you. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to have the conversation we need to have. I understand if you’re still angry with me, & if you wish this had never happened between us.
We had not spoken since I think we should just be friends.
There is a dream I have often, have had since the night I first received those heart-worn text messages. I recognise it well now, the moment it begins, the two of us on a bridge. And her, pulling back after kissing me for the first time. And me, teetering on the cusp of something beautiful. In the dream I already know what is to come. Some days I think the dream is truer than anything real life ever could compose.
So I think of memory. Think of melody. Think of breath in throat. It was for nothing. It was for everything. Think of shared earphones. Skrillex. Are You Lonesome Tonight? Think of listen to this, it reminds me of you. I think of first kiss on a bridge, not supposed to be a date, I’ve never kissed anyone before.
In the dream there are many things I could say now, as she pulls back after a first kiss, searching my face, yearning for something it would be so simple to deny her. I could brush this all off as a joke, as something neither of us needs to speak of again, something to tuck into the folds of time & learn to live without. I could escape the inevitable shattering I know without knowing is to come. There are many people in this wide world who do not enjoy music. There are many who will not listen.
God. This could be so easy.
Her face all bright & breathless, hands dancing into knowing. In the dream she smiles like something worth keeping. Like the memory of this moment is the only thing that has brought us so far already.
In the dream, like in real life, I don’t say anything for too long. I can see her about to withdraw, hurt shuttering the windows of her eyes. Somewhere in the distance I hear violins.
And the edges of my heart, still so soft despite so much. And her voice, composer & conductor & heckler in the audience, a mess of contradictions. And we don’t have to do this. And I could back away now. And it could be so easy. And it could be so easy. And it could be so easy.
In the dream there are two sentences, repeating over & over.
This is where it all begins.
This is where we press play.
I take a deep breath, hold it. The dream ends the same way every time.
You could use some more practise. Why don’t we start now? I say to her. And let myself drown.
(Silver-Tipped Swallow is a Half Mystic column about the ways in which music intertwines with our experiences in loving, losing, & lingering on what remains. This column, along with one more column by the HM team & many more pieces by contributors, is published in Half Mystic’s Issue II: Saudade. It is available for pre-order now - for nights soft & aching; for days tender & sorrowful; for moments when only music can ease the hurt of remembering.)