Since returning back from Soltara, life has seemed – dull. Empty, really, and I feel like I am searching for something meaningful in all the monotony of each new day. For everyone else around me, things seem the same, they feel the same, but I… I am different, somehow.
For years, I carried around pain, a darkness I called my own – I called it, “Me”. This tangible weight in my chest that I knew well, so familiar with it in fact that on any given day, should that feeling be less or nearly gone, I felt wrong, I felt distressed, like something I could not name had shifted. Now, that feeling is constant, and I am not quite sure what to do with it. The solace I have in the midst of this big adjustment are these words, these keys waiting to be tapped swiftly, this mind waiting to spill onto this white blank page. I find comfort here, perhaps the only real comfort I have right now, and so I have been writing often – even when I feel I have nothing worthwhile to say, something about the act of saying anything at all is helpful, familiar, otherwise I am quite lost at the moment; empty.
I just took a nice hot shower, it felt good on my aching body. Chills and waves of sickness have plagued me now for two days, and I am growing impatient for this sickness to leave me. I have low energy, and hardly any will to do much, so I’ve laid around and set about the work of nursing myself back to health. So now comes the words – something I thought about while the hot water rained down on me, while the soap that smells of roses came into my awareness, while I stood in the warmth of my third shower of the day. The words came, and so now comes the work – the thing I love doing the most in my life…
Along the shore ducks dart about, vying for scraps of stale bread tossed in by giddy children and their doting parents. The morning air is brisk enough to justify a scarf and a warm coat to keep out the chill, the grass is glistening with dew from another frost overnight, and breath escaping lips sticks around as puffs of vapor into the cool wind. Walking slowly, Johanna takes in the familiar seen of her favorite Pacific Northwest river bend. Home, for a short while, alone for an early stroll – she had to leave the house quietly and her hope to not wake another soul as she left was met with a silent, undetected exit. Relief, this time alone is rare, much needed, especially when visiting the land of her childhood. Another trip around the sun, another Christmas merrily spent with siblings, their children, and her adoring father. Her own children eagerly spent their days guessing what Santa would deliver come Christmas morning, her husband brought the coffee from the local Dutch Bros stand just down the street and always set it in sight right on the nightstand, something she had asked him to do shortly after they met 8 years prior. He never forgot, but today, she was happy to grab her own latte if it meant she could savor this time to just… Be, with no distractions.
Up ahead she spotted a downed tree, obviously bleached from the sporadic Washington sun after no doubt spending years winding down the Columbia River. Frenchmen’s Bar, a favorite haunt from several years past, the place she always went when she needed time to remember. Coffee in hand, still warm, she took a seat and stared out into the water. Nearby a parked ship awaited its orders, and every now and then a jet loudly sped overhead, ‘home’, she smiled to herself, taking a sip of the white chocolate peppermint latte she always ordered – a creature of habit, a concoction perfect for the holiday season. A chilled gust of wind wrapped around her body, she shivered and thought soon she would need to head back, the family would wake soon, and their coming day was filled with outings with family, something she cherished more than words could say. Time home such a precious gift, once a year, sometimes twice, but never long enough to spend with the people she called true Family.
Her phone in her pocket, she reached in and grabbed it, ready to snap a picture with a clever tagline for Instagram, otherwise put away again not wanting to spoil the chance to be truly present. As she opened the screen, she noticed she had a message waiting. A text. A number she did not recognize which began with the familiar 360 of Vancouver, Washington. “Hmm”, she mumbled, clicking open the text. “I heard you were home, can we meet for coffee?” Strange, she thought, everyone whom had wanted to see her had already made their arrangements, after all, time home is a rarity too many people want to take advantage of, “who the heck is this?” She thought, deciding to be more polite to the mystery person requesting her company. “Hi, who is this? Sorry, I do not have your number programmed”. She hit send, turned up the sound to be notified of a reply, and set it on the wood beside her. Two minutes passed and the phone dinged, “Dylan”. Her heart leapt, and then bursted with wild thumping so hard she could feel it on the outside of her thick jacket, nearly dropping the phone into the cold sand at her feet. ‘No, this has to be a joke’, she immediately thought, thinking surely, no. Surely not. This cannot be true.
Dylan had moved some time after she left Washington, and had since been married and became a father, and he was the very last person on earth she ever believed she would hear from again. “No, no, no… This cannot be real”, she said aloud, staring down in shock at the name. “Dylan, seriously? Prove that it is you”, she typed, hastily, having to correct her spelling because the words would not come out right. Send. Wait. Ding.
“Little butt”, he wrote, and she spit out the big gulp of coffee she had poured into her quivering lips. The name he called her, the nickname nobody else would have known. ‘Oh my God… oh my God… oh my God’ she thought, her mind racing, ‘it IS YOU!’ Her memories ignited, and suddenly images of him flashed before her eyes of the two years they had spent together, and suddenly it hit her, ‘this is it, this, right now… What I have waited for all these years’.
“Dylan, hi, yes, I can do coffee. I’m at the river, can you meet me here?” She could not believe it, not really. A thousand questions suddenly made their way into her mind, questions like why now, what now, is he okay? Is his mom okay? Is he home for good? She opened her phone and stared at the screen, awaiting the next ding to come through, ‘I need to text Ethan. Oh my God Ethan!’ She remembered who she was, where she was, and felt immediately pulled apart inside about how to explain this to her husband. “Ethan, hey babe, hope you slept well. I snuck off to the river, and I would like to just sit here awhile if that’s okay?” She had a choice and went with the easiest one, knowing if she had to explain the truth in that moment she might be met with an uncomfortable conversation, and did not want to dull this long-awaited surprise by spending time explaining it to him. She took a deep breath, ding, “Yeah, on my way”, Dylan replied. Is this real? Oh my God, this is real…
She slid her phone back into her coat pocket and stood up, pacing back and forth. The family feeding the ducks had left her sight and she found herself completely alone. She knew from most places in Vancouver it would take about 25 minutes to arrive there, and so decided to do whatever she could in that time to calm her nerves. She slid off her boots and socks and tried to ground herself in the cool sand, she found rocks and mindlessly threw them into the rushing river water. She kept checking her phone to see if Ethan had responded, ‘he hasn’t even read the messages, good, that means they aren’t even awake yet’. The time was 7:14am, she probably had at least an hour before the baby was awake, especially given the time change they were all still growing accustomed to. Phone back in pocket, she paced some more, ignoring the cold that was quickly numbing her bare feet, but acutely aware of the rapid pounding in her chest. This moment, this, right now… Years. It has been years, waiting.
About twenty minutes had passed before she let herself start walking back up the shore to the long empty parking lot. She had no idea what kind of car he was driving but knew only that soon she would be faced with a dream she’d conjured countless times since the years they last were together. 10 years, 12 maybe? She couldn’t remember, but it was long enough to realize that so much ought to be different, surely, they were completely different people, having lived separate lives in different countries all this time. As she approached the hill up to the parking lot, she heard a car door shut, caught her breath, and broached the slight slope upwards to finally see the cars ahead, there he stood.
“Dylan”, without even giving it a moment hesitation she rushed forward, smiling wide, shaking with nerves and anticipation. He stood, waiting, and when she got close enough finally reached both arms up to welcome her embrace. “Johanna,” he replied, his face pressed into her neck, they held each other like fond friends do after years apart, they held each other like it was familiar but desperately missed, the kind of hug you dream of receiving, the kind of hug you want to give. He felt her tremble, she felt his heart. She pulled away, back far enough to see his face, “It is really you?” Standing in disbelief, in shock, with a thousand questions racing about, but all she could say was, “Hi, it’s you!” He smiled, shyly, she could tell he was nervous, she could sense his emotions were waging war inside of him, that there was something he came here for, though she knew immediately it would not be easy for him to say it.
Her intuition proved right as she finally pulled away, keeping her hands on his arms, “well, do you want to walk, or sit? I left my shoes over there” … She pointed down river, “let’s walk”. She commanded, pulling him forward. He trailed closely behind her, leaving enough space between them to give himself time to formulate his thoughts, but close enough so as to not waste any more time being completely apart. They walked, silently, until she arrived first at the waiting driftwood where her shoes laid empty in the sand, they both sat, close enough together their knees could touch. He peered out into the water, “I haven’t been here a while”, he said, breaking the thick silence. “Yeah, me neither”, she replied, glancing at him, smiling. “Why are you here, Dylan? Is everything okay? I never imagined… I… I never thought I would hear from you again”.
His eyes caught hers as she said that, “I know, I am sorry”, he said, never breaking his stare, Johanna could sense his apprehension, she could sense his heart aching from the way he spoke, “I am sorry it took me so long to be able to see you, all this time”.
“You’re here now, Dylan, why? How did you get my number?” He broke his eyes from hers and ignored the question, changed his stare out to the water, pulled his jacket tight around his chest and sat in silence, a pause seemingly so long Johanna wanted to rip the words out of his mouth. She leaned in, “Dylan, I am so glad you are here. If you cannot speak, if you just need to be here, that’s okay.” She reached her hand over and touched his arm, his hands folded into each other, his elbows resting on his knees – ‘he still sits the same’, she thought, smiling as if in a lucid dream.
“I’ve missed you, Johanna. I just needed to see you. I just… Needed this.” His hands unfolded and he draped his left hand over her right, a comforting gesture, returning his eyes back to hers. She leaned in closer at the invitation and found her head easily meet his shoulder.
As if time had returned them to the exact place they left off, they remained here for what seemed to both like forever. Nothing mattered. Not the cold wind, not her frozen bare feet. Not the coffee getting colder by the second in the cup in the sand. She forgot about everything, but just sank into the bliss of the moment, the surrender of a thousand dreams coming true right in that scene. No words were necessary, she concluded, no explanations needed. Just, to exist, with him, for this time. In the gift he saw fit to grant her, without knowing why, without caring why. “Just be”, she whispered aloud, “Hmm? What did you say?” He responded, quietly. “I said we just be, here, together. This is perfect.” He smiled and landed a gentle kiss on the top of her head. She pressed into it, tenderly. The questions left her, the why, the what; every second they had been apart suddenly vanished, and all that was, all that mattered, was that he came back. For how long she couldn’t know, but she didn’t care. ‘He came back’ she thought, now pushing her body closer into his. “You came back”, she whispered in his ear.
I know I could never dream this into being, and I know even if I could I am only ever one half of the equation, and his willingness to know me at all seems to be zero, so I am left with merely the scenes I create for myself. I only ever knew, tonight, that I wanted to write something I could love – something I could imagine that would satisfy the fact that I still miss him, today. Something that would paint some semblance of truth, of how it would be, for me, should he ever come back into my life. Dream of this I do, but it is never as good as what I can write in these pages. It is never as vivid as what I see when I think of him in my waking hours.
I’ve never forgotten his smile, so I can imagine perfectly well what he would look like smiling back at me. I was obsessed with his hands, so I know what that looks like when he places his atop of my own. And the way it felt just to be near him? You could have me fall in love a thousand times, every day, for the rest of my life – and mean it, but I would never, I could never, forget what it felt like to be the woman with him. The one he chose to be at his side. We were young lovers, we were imperfect, we were prone to argue about religion and science, and debate for hours about the meaning of the lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (one time I actually, literally cried because I felt like him and his mom were ganging up on me, because as a Christian I hated those words!) We were young, indeed, and we spent a lot of time being jealous of other’s giving one of the other attention, we spent a lot of time worrying about money, we spent a lot of time simply living, moment to moment, just getting by. But what we kept, what we knew for sure at the end of every long day, was that the truth of “us” was love. Plain, simple, beautiful – Love.
When I met “Dylan” I was… Gosh, 19, so that would have made him 22 – yeah, he had just turned 22 a couple of weeks before we met. We were just trying to figure ourselves out, let alone try and find our way through the intense love we found the moment we met. We had a lot of growing up to do, we had a lot to learn. We hurt each other, we fought stupid young fights, and we got through it because we loved each other too much, even throughout the foolishness that comes with being in love for the first time – we were… Sure. He asked me to marry him just over a year after we met, right before Christmas actually; he put the ring in my stocking and proposed in our living room. It was just us, against the world. Just a guitar man and his brown-eyed girl. Just a quiet, shy loner with the wild and wayward waitress he met because she served him his chicken fried steak at Ihop. It was the perfect story, for me, because he took me from being hopeless to hopeful. He brought me from unsure to steady. He opened his arms, his home, and his heart to me – when nobody else IN MY ENTIRE LIFE even saw me, let alone knew how badly I was struggling just to survive. I had no direction, he offered me home. I had no love, he gave me his whole, beautiful heart.
The reason I write, about him, the reason I still miss him – I am not unhappy with where my life is now, I am not yearning for something I do not have – I am not harming my husband because of this old love… The reason I write now is because it is all I have left. It is all I have. To keep him alive inside of me, because he matters too much, even now, to let this go. These memories – this time, it is, was… It remains some of the very best days I’ve ever lived, and HE gave me that. He did. I write because I want to share the beautiful story that we wrote together, from the moment I saw him walk past me in a Carhart jacket and beanie with a friend I went to school with (and they sat in my section: Fate), to the very last time I ever saw him driving down 4th Plain in a white car I didn’t recognize (I taught him how to drive: Fate). I have learned enough in all the years since those days what it means to truly value real love, because I’ve only ever had it that time, and right now. Twice, to love fully – that is a gift, and it began with him.
I’ve asked my husband a thousand times, “Are you sure you do not mind that I still write about him?” And he always smiles and says, “It’s a part of you, and I love you – so no, I do not mind”. And I am so grateful for that, but sometimes even I feel, I don’t know, bad I guess, because if it were me in his shoes I am not sure how I would feel. The gift of love my husband gives me is that he loves all of me, and this part – this part, well, it is perhaps one of the biggest parts of me, something I treasure dearly, and I will for the rest of my life.
Nobody can know what the future holds, whether indeed my dream of seeing my first love, my great love, will ever come true. I cannot say for sure where he is, how he is, or who he is now. Surely the time has changed him, surely the loss of us shaped who he has become, I know this because it changed me, too. I’ve had a hard time opening up, and even loving my husband, which I do, has not come easily. At least not how it came back then: Effortless. To love that boy, it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I was meant to have that love, I was meant to write this story. But sometimes I grieve that love, since that time, has been scary, it’s been hard to be vulnerable, to trust, to believe in destiny. I think that is because I was so sure I had it, and then I lost it. Can someone ever be truly fortunate enough to get that twice? But then my husband puts the coffee on the nightstand, the way my first love did, and I know – I see, he understands me. He loves me, too, yet I grieve that he does not always get the best of me, and the first time I ever loved, way back then, well, he did – he got all of me, and he made me whole, and I’ve only ever had that once, with him. He gave me the best of him, even when it hurt me, and we loved each other fiercely.
The end was brutal. It was … a nightmare I did not wake up from for years. It wasn’t until I had my first child that I started to even really feel again. I faked it, well. I hid it, to everyone as best I could, but never to my Dylan. He knew, he knew what I did when I left, that I made a mistake and I would regret it. Alas, it brought me here, and this new life is pretty great. Yet I still struggle with what I left behind, and I think that is a natural part of loving that deeply. Had I loved him any less, this might not still be a dream I keep in my mind, it might not still be a love I treasure and hope to know again, if even in silence on a shoreline, sitting beside a man I used to know with my whole heart. Even if I never get that, if I never see him again, these words keep us alive, even if they’re fiction. These words, for him, will never cease. This story is too good not to write, even if I’m just imagining what it might be like to ever get that message from a number I do not recognize. . .
It was nothing less than that. Rare, beautiful. Even in its ending. It took hell to rip us apart, and that is saying everything, for me now, now that I’ve coped with it, and learned to live with the ending – I know it took hell because nothing short of that could have ever parted us. I will never fully understand why… Why. But I guess now I do not have to. I have made myself a family, and I adore them. It just sucks, because sometimes I wish that was never part of my story, alas, here I am. And there he is… Wherever he is. A stranger now. Yet, still so alive inside of me, in my dreams, and in these words. I hope he reads them, someday. I hope he smiles and could say to himself, “I know that dream, too” because maybe he dreams it with me, maybe he helps write these words, with his spirit that still lives in my heart. He has never left me, and I hope he never does.
My guitar playing, quiet poet, talking with his hands, cigarette pressed between his lips, tinkering with something in the garage. His hands smelling of oil and metal chips. His face scruffy, unshaved. His heart, open to the deepest love that he carries inside for that girl he used to know. Moved on, yes, and I hope he is happy, but most of all, I hope he remembers me. Truly lets himself remember.
Someday, a walk along the shore of that old river we used to go to, that would be the kind of end we needed to have, the kind of end we never got to have. Back then, it was just too sad, but we’ve grown, and things are different now. I would love to be able to see him and be sure – that I was right, and this was love. The rarest kind. The kind of love that lives on, even when it was supposed to burn in its fiery end. For me, never… it will always be a part of me. The biggest part of my history, and I still grieve that it is history, but such is life. Love lives on. Even if only ever in my dreams. In my ceaseless words. Dylan and Johanna. The song never ends…