She was looking for any sign he’d been there, tears that surprised her gurgling forth upon her cheeks like fresh water springs. She swiped at them as if they were something that did not belong to her, looking for a sock he might have left, or something from his pocket. All she had of him was his piss in her toilet and the crinkle in her sheets, which she knew very well could have been from her own body. She stood in the quiet for a moment- it was always such a shock for those first moments. Her place had been full of people, all seemingly revolving around her one guest, and when they all left, and when she packed him up and drove him where he needed to leave from, she would come home, finding her apartment eerie in the afternoon light, dim without the lamps turned on. She stood, looking around, letting the quiet run down her bones like the springs dripping from her chin.
He had come, in the broad light of Easter, ducking out of a stranger’s car in the back of her driveway. She had been sitting amongst neighbors playing horse shoes and drinking, enjoying the festive afternoon, and had looked up to see a familiar shadow moving towards her. He was just skin on bone before he stepped into the light, and then she saw him, in that mussed hair and sinewy muscles. The way he strutted towards her, his gangly walk a little less dramatized after years of wandering the roads. Before she even knew she knew him, before his name came hurtling off her teeth, her bones were pulling her forward, towards him, down the little slope, and into his arms. It had been three years.
She had pictures of him from high school, his hair shaved down, his eyes like this crusted jewels perched upon his high cheek bones, his thumbs stuck in his suspenders, tie hanging lose if not already yanked off. The first time she had met him he had bent down to tie her shoe, then stood up and shook her hand. After that, they were friends. He would spend long evenings imprinted on her mother’s couch watching Harry Potter, her favorite series. Whenever she caught a cold, which seemed often, he would walk all the way to her house with hot cocoa and soup, and sometimes flowers, and spend the evening folded up next to her.
She remembered arguing with him, it had been so long since they had had that much time together, to argue, for him to claw at her nerves. One time she had demanded he leave her house, he was driving her insane.
-Just walk to the store with me. Buy me a pack of butts. Pleaseeee.
-It’s a blizzard out, Zak. And I’m sick. I’m not walking anywhere.
-Just down the hill.
-I’m going to kick you out.
-I’m out of cigarettes.
-I don’t give a shit. Get out. You’re driving me through a wall.
He hadn’t even started smoking (again) until he had started hanging out with her. They were slinking around the back parking lots near the McDonald’s and the movie theatre in their tiny town, beneath the shadow of their prestigious prep school up on the hill, and she was chain smoking. He took a drag, looking around for teachers and townies that would rat him out. She was just getting ready to turn 18. They ducked behind some shrubbery in the parking lot, trying to loiter unobtrusively. He smoked a whole cigarette then, hacking after each drag, and ducking whenever a car pulled up to the drive thru. She laughed and laughed, telling him to relax.
-No one’s gonna see you back here. Cut it out.
-I can’t risk it. This is sketchy. Can we go somewhere else?
-There’s not many other places. Just don’t worry. She pulled on her cigarette, leaning heavily on one leg.
For years to come when she described him she would tell about his Bob Dylan songs. She wrote a poem for him once, after they had fallen out of touch over a stupid fight, and she wrote of his walk, with his pelvis thrust forward, his legs too gangly for him, and she wrote of his fingers plucking at the steely strings to a Bob Dylan tune, and she thought she had done him lovely justice, that she knew him well.
She did know him well. She had learned very much about him on the days he would walk her home, or most of the way home when he could, insisting on carrying her back pack. Sometimes they would stop just a ways before her house, sit down on the train tracks, and smoke a cigarette. She would gush over Christoph, a mutual friend, smoke rolling off her lips as she begged of Zak, why why why.
It was one of these times, if she could remember correctly, that he sat and told her about Savannah, a love he never knew he could house. The two girls would later become great friends, with a bond as thick as her and Zak’s, but on this day she knew only what Zak said of her, this gypsy girl with a flower in her ear. He said she could sing as sweet as any bird in a tree. She was happy for Zak, and they would spend many hours on those cold tracks as the color leaked from leaves, exchanging words on how to love, and how to give, the musing and wonders of two old friends.
-We almost had sex, he’d say, pulling on his cigarette. His chin would always be pointed slightly skyward.
-No. I’m not ready, and I mean, she’s not either. We don’t even need to. I’ve never loved someone so much. Draaaag. Exhale. I mean. I think it will be her, when the time is right.
She would think of this, in the quiet of the night, when he showed her all he had learned in the last three years, with hands guided by confidence, sliding over her as if he had known the route of her body all along, like the roads he hitchhiked for years. He would spell out the lessons he had been taught on nights similar to these, similar and yet so very different. She would marvel at how he had grown, from the gangly boy she knew into this wiry man, his skin a taught sundried hide over his bones, hair wrapped in colored string and matted in places, pulled back into a bun or a ponytail at times. She would follow the slope of his cheekbones with her perfectly manicured fingers, so proper against the cliff of his cheek, and she would just marvel at how time brought him back to her. And how time would take him away.
In high school he had run away. He was a boarding student, and she had always thought of him as a bird in a cage, the way his mind was always in the clouds, only resting upon the tops of mountains before racing across the sky again. He had taken off, though, and went out to the woods to live, in a tent. It was with much convincing, and she had done a lot of talking on his behalf, that he had come back to finish his junior year, with a promise of continuing his senior year. He ran away again his senior year, and that was for good. That was the last time she had seen him, sitting over a cafeteria dinner, next to his new girlfriend she was grilling. She was upset he’d left Savannah, her now dear friend. She was getting ready to go to Ireland, and she had come to say goodbye. He was grim over the series of events, and grim to be back in this fluorescent setting. She was trying not to fume at him, as she leaned across the table, candidly being a bitch to the pasty little girl perched next to him.
Then she was gone, off to Ireland, and he had been very upset with her behavior before she’d gone, and he would not respond to any apology from overseas. Her inbox exploded when he left again his senior year, when he disappeared to live in the woods with the pasty girl’s family. Have you heard from Zak? He dropped out again. Have you talked to him? No one’s seen him. Zak dropped out again.
That was the trickle of the news she would gather on him for a year or more. For what felt like forever. Sometimes when she was home sick in that foreign green land she would weep at his absence and wonder where the hell her best friend was, and why the hell he was so lost he had even erased her off his map.
There he was, though, crude tattoos looped over prevalent parts of his body, like his forearm and calf. A black and white stick and poke of a sunflower with a beanstalk wrapped around it, and a fire stove with words that said where? In the plume of smoke. She traced these with fingers, trying to reconcile this man with the boy she had fought bitterly with, until they begged each other’s forgiveness.
-Are you surprised? He asked her, his fingers strumming her spine like his ukele.
-No. I didn’t expect it, but I’m not surprised. ‘Specially after your drunken confession. She beamed up at him and he blushed.
He had written her online, when he was drunk, saying that all those winter days buried on her couch he had butterflies, and he had wondered. She told him, she had wondered too. But they had been best friends.
When word spread he’d made it to town, her mother called to say hello, her sister, Brenna, got on the phone without knowing what to say, but just excited to hear his voice. When Brenna was younger they used to tell her Zak was going to buy her for an arranged marriage.
-He’s giving us fifty bucks.
-Yeah, and I’m going to beat you and make you clean my house and do my laundry. They would laugh, and her little sister would punch her in the arm, or pout and say No he’s not!
She recalled these little things when he hung up the phone, and they laughed about it together, recalling fondly those nights sitting amongst her family, how he fit in like many of the vagabond souls she brought home for her mother to love and feed. He was a special one, he was one who had spent many a long hours there, draped around the house like the rest of her children.
Yet, now he was gone. She had just a few hours before she had to get ready for work. With him had come the onslaught of all she had been questioning, if what she was doing was what she truly loved, if she was happy. She thought of her sister growing up, all she was missing living hours from home. She had showed him her modest apartment with pride, saying look, Zak, look how I have grown up and provided for myself quite nicely, with a lot of work of course. And he had curled around her on the couch, Harry Potter already playing before he had even arrived.
But he was gone again, she had watched him in her rearview, strolling down a hill, his thumb stuck out, tendril of his mussed hair being picked up by strands of wind. He had promised to return, to meander his way back to her soon, but for now he had to go, and she knew that the most she’d ever have was a piece of his little gypsy soul. She never knew she would wish for him so badly, she had discovered in the years that stretched between them, and she was prodding the depth of that longing as she watched him disappear around a bend, the quick glint of sapphire as he turned one last time to wave to her.
She had said that morning, as he curled his arm around her, that she could write a whole short story on how her gangly best friend had grown into this meandering wise man. He laughed, but in the quiet of her apartment, in the dim light of the day, she sat and she wrote, and she thought she could feel him in her bones, that’s how close they all these years grown. She felt a little relief as she let the words out. She let him go.