by Melissa Matthewson
If there was something to mention in the first sentence, to set a scene, it would be the backstreets: how they shaped the rows of houses, their geometry performed in straight lines as if you could cut them with scissors and collage them into another map. You could make a different city. These alleys accommodated many things, like lilac bushes and broken fences, cats on rooftops, puddles with pebbles overcome with the aftermath of a spilling storm, children with voices that reached out and spun to the chimneys. Each of the homes with their collective alleyways contained a view, but my take was to the hill by the college, the one with the “M” sketched in white across the side slant, reached only by climbing a steep trail to the top, from which one could take in the spread of valley dotted with marks and blemish of grass, both dead and growing, both still and becoming. This valley stored ranches, box stores, parking lots, bars, bridges, and, far off, a woman holding a baby next to her chest, so close, like a packaged gift: the breath of such a life small and vital on the air around which the world passes by without thought, without recognition of, or response to, the beauty of such an image. But that would be only one way to start.
No, this is better,
In an afternoon silver with trees and no birds, a storm came too fast spreading snow across the sidewalks. It came so fast there was no time to prepare. I walked quickly from campus through the Missoula streets, huddled against the snow without a proper jacket to shelter me. I felt the possibility of loss as an exertion of pressure on my chest as I walked, the force overwhelming as if I were to be swallowed into the buried sky. This loss as an interruption to the ordinary. My fiancée had gone to the mountains with two friends hours before. I wondered about them in the woods with the snow. I wondered about the blurry confusion of a quick storm. You could say I was worried. As a couple, we were so new, our love like fresh soap taken from the plastic and sweet like lavender. What little we knew of snow in those mountains, of anything really, like love and forgiveness, forgetting, or worse, this thing I wonder about: loss. I learned that in physics, loss is “a reduction of power within or among circuits, measured as a ratio of power input to power output.” I want this definition to be generic. Circuits, as in the way we are tied together. When you love, you lose. So then.
When he didn’t return from the hike he set out on, when the snow kept coming and the day darkened with violet overtones and wrenched gray, when I opened that beer and took the taste of hops down my throat, so too the circuitry of my power dulled, everything in me equalizing, reduced to nothing—all my bones, my skin, my body without influence. I was paralyzed with worry. The only thing I could do was watch the storm bury my car, and the children across the street who were busy building a snowman. They laughed as they placed stick arms onto the figure’s torso. Maybe they argued about whose scarf they could abandon to their art. I could have gone out to them, or to the road, stood there and waited for the snow to bury me as it would bury him and the snowman and the children rolling balls. I could have stayed there for a long time and let the snow stick to my hands, or hair, or boots, and leave my love to the snow just like that. Let it unfold as it would.
To think about loss first is another way to tell the story, before the snow, and in particular, when anything—cars, wind, fall, razor, saw, etc.—arrives hard and fast without thinking about you or anyone else you love. Events that break a life just like that. I could use the phrase A blink of the eye or In a flash to tell you the haste of loss, but these say nothing of the tension or speed of devastation because they are so ordinary, so, I don’t know, dull. We say them every day. No, what I’m talking about is that moment when you remember that yes, we all lose somebody at some point. There are reasons that afternoon of snow has thickened into my mind, why I recall it now almost as acutely as the day it occurred. My heart beats still to think about the terror, about the tug of being alone, about the dark house without my love in it, about the empty leftovers of the day’s warning, the snow itself a caution: be careful who you let in and always be prepared to let go.
I once saw a man on the street, a performer painted all silver—his face, his arms, his hair—and when I passed by him, he didn’t move, but stayed lodged in place, unmoving and impassive, his eyes fixed onto the steeple of the building across the way. I stopped to watch. We stood there for a long time together. Minutes passed. The sidewalks filled and emptied. The light shifted to the window behind me. I remember looking to the people around me and wondering if they wondered as much as I did about the man behind the silver, wondered what he had lost, if he had lost, and what had they lost, and isn’t it just this community of loss that traces us all together? This collective losing. After awhile, I thought it must be time to go; I had stood there too long already and who was this girl who wouldn’t budge from the sidewalk and move on to the small insignificances of her own life? Her bag was heavy; she must have had somewhere to go even as she lifted the bag and realized the silver man had slowly shifted his position over the minutes she had been standing there, without her notice or attention, his silver body now entirely placed to the east, to her, his eyes designing what she could never know.
On second thought,
There’s something to be said about departures. This is a different kind of beginning. I think about how our loyalty holds us, our devotion to each other remains strong in ways I sometimes don’t understand. I was devoted to my fiancée, so I went to find him on that afternoon, despite the uselessness of such a search. How was I to find him in the snow? I didn’t know where he had gone, carried only a vague notion, but I went anyway, in the dark, driving over wet snowed pavement, gripping the steering wheel with just wool gloves, maybe I wore a hat, and I took the truck because it could navigate the way better. I waited for a long time before leaving, the snow almost too much to drive in by then, beer on my breath still, a possibility of highway interruptions—police or car crashes or a woman crossing the street with her baby in the snow, I’m not sure.
But then he came back to me, or I him, coming down the road in our friend’s big truck as I rambled toward the mountains. He returned, as many do who wander in the wilderness, as some don’t, the possible loss just a distance now, not even in the consciousness of that day, so quickly gone to the past. He appeared in the glow of my headlights, his figure appearing in the front seat of my friend’s car. The driver rolled down the window and I looked to my fiancée and thought his legs must be shaky from walking for hours, tense too, the core of his body cold and uncertain and scared and the snow still spreading against the windows as I thought of something to say. There was nothing to say. I didn’t say anything, or maybe it was, “Where have you been?” or “What happened?” and the chaos and relief of return was burdened by his stiff back and frozen fingers. I didn’t speak for a long time at the pub as he devoured two hamburgers, a beer, fries, everything he had before him on that table, his attempt at glut, at satisfaction so obvious: a need to extinguish a disappearance or loss that could have been.
This isn’t working,
I think my fear of loss on that snowy afternoon could be as lonely as the vulnerability of standing with the silver performer and meeting his eyes in expectation of what he might find. What could he find? The loss I have felt. The worry. It could be as lonely as the pain of a death. The fear as big as the mountains or the dark. The fear as big as the silver man still standing there forever staring at me. The fear of everything that could be gone or revealed or unearthed or taken.
Here’s what I can imagine of my fiancée’s experience: Maybe he thought of ways he could survive. He didn’t tell me so, but maybe he could have found a tree to crawl under. To dig out the snow, curl up next to the bark, remember what waited for him at home: Me. The youth he still had. The land he hoped to work in the future. He might have thought about how to start a fire with wet tinder all around. He might have thought about building a shelter of sticks. Maybe he wanted to do something with his hands. To keep busy. Maybe he only wanted to be found. He would be restless or cold and sad, but then maybe the snow would keep him company, and the dog too, the black dog with her warmth, would radiate to him and maybe he would have laid his head on her back and that would be enough. He might make note of things he would say to me if he could.
This must be the end then,
I suppose we’ve all walked into the snow, let it come quickly and cover us, allowing us to think of anything we’ve ever lost: a slipper shoved under the couch; a wallet in the crease of a car; my daughter, unwound in her jackets and backpack in the stacks of the library, sitting on the carpet with just the books surrounding her, her loss felt in the spine of a book, in the story and the words that come up off the page. Loss upon leaving a place. Loss like a porcelain sink holding water until it doesn’t and you let the drain go, and let all of whatever’s left flow away down into the pipes to the sewers. But these are the small losses. Losing someone into the snow, or a daughter in the crowded mall where only a stranger can undo the day, or the death of a lover: these are the losses that count. It is the expectation of loss, the fear, that feeling in the pit of your abdomen, like heavy sand, like ice that rules the heart. This sink of sadness feels like everything and nothing at once, so much that it allows me to recall the people I have lost: a good friend to the cliffs, another friend to cancer in his hips, a grandmother to old age. I wrote a wisteria poem for her when she died. I swam naked in an ocean for my friends. I remember them. Is that enough? This reminder of loss allows me to love a man who could someday fall away into the snow. I love him for many things: the weight of his heart; the evidence of his life on the folds of his skin near his eyes; hands hewn like brick, like stone, like all the mixings of a strong building; the fiery look that passes onto his face when he’s frustrated or troubled; or just the way he walks down the driveway holding our daughter’s small hand.
MELISSA MATTHEWSON lives in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Sweet, River Teeth, Defunct, Numéro Cinq, and Terrain.org among others. Her essay “A Gathering of Then & Now” won the 2015 AWP Intro Journals award. She is also an assistant essays editor at The Rumpus.