“I brought this for you.” “Oh.” The blue plastic jewel case, the flecks of car dust from where it sat in the glove compartment, the smudged playlist taped to the front of the case. “I thought – I mean, I owed you one.” He smiled, sheepish. My hands felt the edges of the kitchen table, tracing the chips and cracks from years of family and screeching joy and frustration at each other. He held it out to me, pushing the hair out of his eyes.
They were such brown eyes. I’ll never forget that – like all the things he hid from the world he stored up in that one, tender look. And I promised myself in my journals that year that I was the one he was saving those looks for, I was the one who caught the secrets hiding in his dilating pupils. So I held the CD case, suddenly more thoughtful than I wanted to be. I wanted to be anxious, heart racing inside its cage. I wanted to feel all that in-love-with-his-brown-eyes-and-secret-sweetness feeling. I wanted to be back to the girl of weeks before, who had declared in the girl’s bathroom while poking at her eyelid with a pencil that I liked him. And I was going to tell him.
The light was pink outside the window; it had rained earlier. And I sat, calm and quiet, holding his blue plastic CD case. I was still as we laughed about Carrie Underwood, played a song on my new iPod, sat on the fraying couch in the living room, as we pulled on spring coats and walked to the pond.
“It’s not a real pond. I mean, it’s just the second bridge from our house.” We scuffed at the broken winter pavement, chasing the bits of asphalt with our eyes as we walked. “Yeah, no, that’s cool.” More silence, more strange calm. I asked him something about college; he asked me something about debate. We answered past each other, eyes fixed ahead. Past the horse farm – “I’ve always wanted to ride,” I said. “Oh, really?” he looked at me – the sudden, sweet tenderness. “Yes.” Past the houses of best friends and lost friends, of dogs who barked at bikes and the neighbors who refuse to take down Christmas decorations until March. Past the first bridge, the reeds waving at us from their hibernation. Past the Girl Scout camp, the hidden bend in the road where the cops hid their cars at night to catch speeding teenagers and the haggard father racing home.
“So this is it.” We sat down, feet dangling, a bit of sun offering itself to us on the water. We squinted at it. We looked for the beavers, or a fish biting. “So, Hils…” and still, that calm. “I know what you want to say.” “You do?” I did?
“It’s okay.” This became the mantra, the refrain – it’s okay. It’s all okay. The prayer, the angry shout, the promise – “it’s okay,” I said. I nodded a lot, he nodded some, too – just to keep moving, to keep from being still enough to hear the world shifting between us. We threw sticks into the pond, catching them on the last bit of ice.
We walked back to the house, to the world before it had shifted, before we had said nothing and too much, before the admission that this was it, the point beyond tenderness.
He shrugged into his coat, tucked his hands into his sleeves to keep the cold out. I rubbed my arms, hopping up and down in the driveway as I waited for him to say goodbye. But he just looked at me, with that sweet tenderness I’d never see again, and said – “You’ll like the first track. On the CD, I mean. It’s DMB.” And then he got into his car, smiled, and backed out the driveway.
I put the CD on in silence, sat on my bed, closed my eyes. “Stay, beautiful, baby.” I sounded the words in my head as Dave began to sing. “Stay, American baby.” I let the world shift. This was his real secret, hidden in those brown eyes – that despite all of the things we imagine, we remain fixed as ourselves in a turning world. That, despite our wildness, the wonder is not in getting what we thought.
It is in the gifts that go beyond the moment: the Dave Matthews song we played in the car and learned to love, apart from him. The gift of memory turned story, softened by time into something like beauty. The gift of silence in the midst of noise. The gift of holding fast and setting free.
The gift of a CD on a March afternoon, a walk to the pond.
Stay, American baby.
Isn’t it all gift?