In high school, my friend and I developed a secret alphabet for sending each other notes about the wide range of topics that we could not bear to see written down in plain language. We used it to write about the things you might expect us to be concerned with - our confusion about our bodies and our desires, the fears we had about the future, the envy of the girls for whom moving through the days seemed effortless, their lives charmed.
Each letter had its own symbol and we wrote to each other that way, passing a single notebook back and forth. In the margins, scribbles and drawings. On the lines, our painstaking nonsense characters. We became so adept we rarely needed to consult the key. Each of us had our own copy of it, which we kept with us at all times, guarded as carefully as our tampons and our lipsticks.
She was friends with a girl who had two older brothers. She would sometimes spend weekends there at the house. She wrote to me that one night, the eldest came into her room as she slept. She woke to find him standing in the doorway. He came and sat on the bed and they talked like that - him, sitting on the edge of her bed, her lying there under blankets in her nightgown, for hours. When the sky got light, he kissed her on the top of her head and slipped away as quietly as he had come. When she woke later, she couldn’t be sure that she hadn’t dreamed the whole thing.
Weeks passed. But then she was there, again, and again, he came to her. This time, she lifted the blanket for him, and he lay beside her in the narrow bed. And it went on like that, for many months.
“Are you in love with him?” I asked. In those years, that was the only question that mattered.
“How would I know if I was?”
“I think, if you have to ask, it means that you are not.”
Years later, after the visits stopped, they went out once. They were both at home to see family and he took her to a restaurant in town - one where the waitress knew him from when he was small and touched his cheek when she saw him. They drank beer. They talked about their jobs and their friends and the cities they lived in. They never spoke of the night visitations. It was the last time she saw him.
We talked about it once, some time later.
“He moved halfway across the world,” she said. “New Zealand."
"I don’t know that you can get any farther away,” I said.
She nodded. “Yes, I know."
In the back yard, the garden beds are a mess, and I discover that new intrusive weeds have entrenched themselves deep in the soil. Their roots are as wide as fingers. The work is tiring. It goes so slowly. After digging several holes and pulling out these new invaders, I stop, throw the shovel down, collapse on the grass. It is like this every year. How I cycle through euphoria and despair.
I fill dozens of bags with yard debris and refresh the outlines of the beds. I move the hostas to a shadier spot. I cut back the lilac bush and a third of the hydrangea stalks. This year, the pink azalea, obscured and choked by weedy overgrowth for several past seasons, is in bloom. But all around it, wild onion grows unchecked and spreading.
I look for the life lessons. Find myself looking for the cliches about patience and seasons and cycles of death and rebirth. Renewal. They are there, of course, but I am a terrible student.
I put the shovel and the rake away and spend some time instead clearing the front bed beneath the Japanese maple tree. Just a few stray weeds there, tender and young, and they come up in my hands easily, at the slightest tugging. There is at least some satisfaction in that.
I walk to clear my head, but nothing clears. I come back full of all the things I have seen: the low mounds of pink dianthus, the sliver of lime rind on the sidewalk, the shards of amber glass in the street.
There is a black plastic gun lying on the front yard of the house where the deflated balloons still hang by their ribbons from the chain link fence.
And the honeysuckle vines, their bright green leaves. Even before flowers, so beautiful, inviting touch. I anticipate their blooms. I anticipate the heady scent of them - so sweet, so full of nectar. Their berries, it is said, are poisonous. But what does that matter to the hummingbird?
Already, so early, the air is heavy and damp.
The day passes in a blur. I sit in meetings and take notes, write down instructions to myself. There are articles to find and read. Files to review. Phone calls to make. Appointments to schedule. And the hours pass like that until I find myself, at the end of the day, wondering where the time has gone.
I attend concerts. The ballet. Art openings and panel discussions. I enter data into databases.
For several years, my high school friend and I meet up once or twice a year at a chain restaurant in a strip mall halfway between the places we live. We each have a single glass of cheap white wine and a bit of limp pasta, take the rest home in a paper carton to have for lunch. We talk about our families - her older brother, her parents, their bickering. My sister and her children. My aunt. About our jobs, our husbands. A couple years ago, when I realize that I am always the one calling, I stop.
I find her again recently and we make plans to meet up - her, now with a two-year-old son. “It’s been a long time,” she says.
“Too long,” I say. Because what do we have, really, except for the people who know us?
Our plans fall through at the last minute, but we promise to try again, to not let so much time pass. I talk to her on the phone, hear her son in the background, shouting. I remember us as we were, decades ago.
She lived near the beach. Sometimes in the afternoons, we would walk down along the water barefoot with our skirts rolled up. The smell of the sea, the salt on our skin. Seventeen. Hearts coiled so tightly, ready to burst. Hummingbird hearts.