I often think of the answer to your question, the last one you asked that night in the rain, I myself asked it too, and I wonder if I will ever be able to fully answer it, but I’ve done my best. So here it is Jade, the full story of how we met.
I was nine, I was nine and you were ten, I spotted you from across the playground, swinging alone on the old, rusty, orange-brown swing set, in the shadow of a big, old oak tree. I was swinging on the new swing set, the one with fresh, shiny blue paint, and shiny chains that didn’t creak. I’m still not exactly sure why, but I got off my swing and went over to you, I think it may have been curiosity, but I know you have always believed it was fate. “Why are you swinging on the old swings?” I asked, as politely as I knew how.
“Because, My Gran says that old things are better than new ones,” you retorted smugly, a smile crossing your mousey face. I decided not to tell you that I thought this area of the playground smelled like rotten eggs. I decided not to tell you that you smelled like the place that I sometimes went with my mom to drop off clothes when I outgrew them, “so that other kids could enjoy them too.” I noticed the notepad that you were clutching tightly to your chest, “do you draw?” I asked feebly.
“I’m learning,” you replied quietly.
“Umm, wanna be friends?” I questioned shyly, fully realizing that my question sounded like that of an overzealous 2nd grader.
“Sure, ok,” you replied, the look on your face made you seem uninterested, but your quick, unwavering response told me otherwise, “except, it might rain today,” I wasn’t sure what the rain had to do with it, and the sky looked completely blue to me. Before I had the chance to ask, my teacher blew her shrill brass whistle to call the end of recess, I ran, and I assumed you were behind me, except, you weren’t. I wondered where you had gone, I wondered through lunch as the skies turned grey, and during free time, when it was raining so we couldn’t go outside, I watched out the window.
The next day, I sat on the old swing set and waited for you, halfway through recess, you came,
“where were you?”
“I was in time-out for punching Davey,” you replied, the smugness from the day before returning to your face. If I were put in time out, I would’ve cried, but Jade, you didn’t, you had something unshakeable in your core, and you didn’t seem to care that you’d missed half of recess.
“What about yesterday, where were you then?”
“I went home,” you replied, your long, dark brown, wavy hair covering your downcast green eyes.
I could tell that you didn’t want to talk about it, but I was curious, and I wasn’t done questioning. In the silence, you seemed to realize that I was trying to prioritize the list of questions I had for you in my brain. Before I could part my lips to ask you the question I decided was most important, you got up from your swing, quietly mumbling, “I have to go.” All was silent around me except for the quiet whistle of the wind, and the creak of the chains on your swing, now empty.
I didn’t see you again until three weeks later, right as I was deciding whether to keep spending my recess sitting on the old swings, waiting for you. It was the last week of school, as I fondly remember, you were already in middle school, a 6th grader at the time, practically an adult it seemed to me. But you would soon be in 7th, and I would move up to 6th. That summer passed quickly, like khaki colored sand, flowing through my fingers, I tried to slow it, but, I couldn’t. Gone were the days of recess and school birthday snacks, I was older now, and so were you.
I don’t remember much of my 6th grade year Jade, believe me, I’ve tried. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to remember, pored over yearbooks, and report cards. I still can’t remember more than one single day. It was the day with the radio. After school, you sat at one of the picnic tables, surrounded by boys, all put in a trance by your handiwork. I pushed through the crowd to find you tinkering with the antennae of a faded, yellow-pink, cracked plastic barbie radio. You daintily moved each antennae ever so slowly, trying to find the signal. “There,” you finally said, standing up, proud of your accomplishment. Then, carefully hoisting the worn radio into your arms, your turned, and ran away. I followed you, I wanted to know where you had been going, and why, this was a mystery I hadn’t yet solved, and I wanted to know.
I followed you through neighborhood after neighborhood, until we finally reached your destination. A small, one level home, with cracked cement steps, yellowing siding spotted with dark green mold, and a lavender purple door. I sat outside as you opened the door and called inside, “Gran?”
“Yes dear?” an aged, meek voice replied.
“I’ve brought a radio, I found music like the stuff you used to perform, Phantom of the Opera.”
“Ah, yes, those were the days, remind me my pet, what day is it? I seem to have forgotten” You sighed deeply in response to this, because, as you informed me later, whenever your Gran referred to you as “her pet,” it wasn’t an endearing term, it meant that she had forgotten your name.
“Thursday, Gran, 2014.”
“My my, time does fly doesn’t it?” You sighed again.
“I’m going to go pick you a vase of flowers.” You said quietly, clearly trying to remove yourself from the situation. When you came outside, I didn’t even bother with an excuse, “I followed you.” You didn’t seem surprised.
“I know, Sorry, I'd Invite you in but, my Gran,” you lowered your voice, “you see, she’s got a disease, it makes her forget, and she’s not very good with company.”
“What does the rain have to do with it?” I asked, unable to contain the question any longer.
“It’s her favorite sound, mine too, so whenever it rains, I come home to open the windows, so she can listen.”
“Can’t she get out of bed?”
“Not when it rains, the humidity makes her arthritis hurt something awful.”
“You must love her, to, drop everything each time it rains and come home, just so she can hear the rain.” You recoiled, obviously not expecting me to delve into the sentimental side of things.
“Well, she’s all have, and she doesn't get much joy these days, so I do what I can to give her the little things, I dunno.” You left it at that, and I couldn’t blame you, tears hid just below your eyelids, threatening to break your constant, untouchable, emotionless facade. I’ve never told you this, but that was the closest I’ve ever seen you come to crying.
You started walking, and I fell in stride beside you. I let you lead the way, mostly because I had no idea where we were. We walked in silence as the sun went down and it got darker and darker. You were the first to break the barrier hanging between us. “Have you ever just wanted to drop everything and leave, travel the world, explore?” You asked, your voice full of wonder. “No, not really, I’d get homesick.”
“Well,” you said, “right now, my Gran needs me, but someday, I’m gonna go everywhere, no place to call home, nothing to be tied down to.”
I hadn’t realized it, but in the darkness, we had walked most of the way back to the school, we ran, our extra energy expenditure warranted with the promise of a seat iminent. We sat on the swings and I listened while you told me of the far away places you would go, you detailed the craziest plan I had ever heard, to leave school, to get out. You suddenly lowered your voice to an animated whisper, “sometimes I think about how easy it would be for my Gran to travel if she weren’t so old, she doesn’t form any tight relations, no one remembers her, and she doesn’t remember them in return. That’s how I’ll be, everyone will forget about me, I’ll never be tied down.” You stopped abruptly, this was the closest you ever came to telling me your plans Jade, next, you whispered, “I've got to get home to my Gran, can you find your way?” I nodded, and just like that, you were gone, the crackle of your feet on the leaves told me you were in a rush, running home to serve dinner for your Gran. I pulled change from my pocket for the payphone, preparing for another of my Mother’s lectures.
Jade, I have cut out this part of the story, both because I know it’s your least favorite, and because I don't remember much of it. I know it’s a full two years that I’m leaving out, and it seems like a lot, it really does, but I feel it’s better left to the imagination anyway. And I only remember not seeing you for a long time, and the sick unsure feeling I had in my stomach, wondering where you had gone. I know now that you were tending your Gran during her last few months, and getting ready to execute your plan. We won’t talk about the funeral, in the small neighborhood cemetery by the lake, or its two attendees. But after the funeral, we both know what came next, unfortunately. I’ve written it in as much detail as I can bear Jade, and if we ever meet again, perhaps you can help me fill in some of the blanks, as well as pick up your Hamlet copy.
You showed up at my door at eleven o'clock at night, wearing your favorite, purple rain poncho, I knew it was you at the door because of the pebbles that you threw at my window. As you waited at my doorstep in the pouring rain, I quietly wondered how you had gotten to my house. My thoughts, though unsaid, seemed to float to your ears. “I walked,” you said, matter of factly.
“Seven.” You held Hamlet, your favorite copy, the one with the missing cover and black pen on page 323 that read, “this book reeks,” which you had scribbled out in red pen.
“ I’m going on an adventure,” You remarked loudly, snapping me from my quiet thoughts of my warm bed. I knew that you would go with or without me, and your adventures had never been dull. So, wordlessly, I put on my own yellow rain poncho, grabbed a flashlight, and we set out on our adventure.
You seemed to know where you were going, so I followed behind, I could hear you exhale every few steps, and I could see your warm breath make clouds in the yellow beam of the flashlight. The rain spit down, flickering the light, dimming our surroundings. With a metallic clang, your old, scuffed boots hit something, we came to a stop, “we’re here,” you stated, your voice monotone, masking your emotions.
“The railroad track?”
“Yes, Hamlet on the railroad tracks sounds quite poetic doesn’t it?” You replied to my question, with one of your own.
“But what about the trains?” I asked, wondering whether you had thought all the way through this plan. You laughed, “trains don’t come at night, silly, plus, I checked the schedule to make sure none would come,”
“You planned this?” I questioned, trying to decide whether to trust you,
I didn’t question any farther, knowing how you would answer. So, in the dark, in the silence, in the rain, you began to read Hamlet, from your favorite copy, the one with the missing cover. And even though nothing was funny, I laughed, I laughed at the cheesy moment, I laughed at the open expanse of the starless sky, and you laughed too Jade, you laughed, and I laughed, we laughed until our sides split, and we couldn’t laugh anymore. We laughed until we cried, lying on the train track, in the dark, in the silence, in the rain.
“How did we get here?” You wondered aloud, but I couldn’t answer, and neither could you, so I picked up the wet copy of Hamlet, and I read, continuing where you had left off. I read until the sun came up, and you sat quietly beside me, I read until I hear the train whistle, I knew you had heard it too Jade, so I stood up, and you did too, and I ran, and I assumed you were behind me, except, you weren’t. I heard the train, and even though I was still running, I knew that you had turned to face it. I wouldn’t settle for the melodramatic ending that you had planned for yourself, so, I turned, the gravel crunching and rolling under my feet. And I ran as I had never run before, trying to get close to you, close enough to call out, but my vocal cords locked up, and I didn’t have the key, I gasped for air, and the cold surged into my lungs, jolting me to my senses. Then, I remembered your plan, to get out, to fake it and leave no trace, the one you whispered to me in the dark when we were swinging on the swingset where we met. You weren’t on the train tracks anymore, but you hadn’t wanted me to know that, you had always liked the stories with sad endings better. So I turned back around, and played out the scene just as you had wanted it.
I felt the whoosh of air behind me as the train passed, and I licked the salt of tears off of my upper lip, you had wanted me to forget you, but that wasn’t a luxury that I had, or would ever have. I had planned the rest of my life with you, the elusive Jade, by my side, my best friend, my partner in crime. I ran until my lungs burned with the cold air inside of them, and I kept on running, my legs took me far away from the train tracks as tears streamed down my face, they took me to the house where you had gone when I followed you home that day in seventh grade. I knew that no one lived there, you had boarded up the windows yourself after your mother had passed. I sat on the cracked cement steps, gasping for air, and noticed that my trembling hands still tightly clutched your favorite copy of Hamlet.
I stood up, and I retraced the steps you must’ve taken when you left after recess the first day we met, I looked all around me, I smelled what you had when I walked past the garbage dump at the end of your street, piled high with rust and plastic, the one where you had gotten the radio. I saw what you had seen when I walked through the alley with the graffiti that had inspired you to learn how to draw. I retraced your steps, and they brought me back to the site of the old swing, where we had first met. It was gone now, replaced by new monkey bars, but the other swings were still there, no longer new, now their paint was cracking, I sat down on the same one I had sat in when I first spotted you, and I laughed, I laughed at how cruel the universe could be. I opened your favorite copy of Hamlet, the one with the missing cover, to page 323, where you had neatly written, “goodbye, for now.” Perhaps it would have been less painful if I had known that you were gone, I wouldn’t have to wonder, or spend my nights analyzing, reflecting, looking, for something you had hidden, I had missed. I still wonder, where did you go Jade? Sometimes I wish that I, like your Gran, would just forget, I wouldn’t have to feel anymore but, I can’t. I hope one day I’ll get a Christmas Card, a greeting, anything, but for now, all I have to remember you by are your old copy of Hamlet, and the beautiful pitter patter of the Oklahoma rain.