When We Were Kings


In high school, you stared at your walls, littered with torn out centrespreads of Nylon and bitch magazine darlings: Kim Gordon, the Smashing Pumpkins, and whoever else would set you apart from your idiot demographic of jocks and pageant queens. Your bookshelves were filled with the great classics, the ones you ripped off of Best Novels of the Century lists you found on the Internet. In your heart, you were a sixteen-year old girl, a would-be queen of a big city, yet each night, you dreamt of falling.

You knew Chagall’s paintings, you knew Nureyev’s face. You were validated, a step above the rest, spending your Fridays evenings at the art museums, conversing with the local poets and musicians. All the small town ghosts you thought could make a home. Still, your heart quelled with desire. Move east, you said, move elsewhere, be bigger, be better.

And all the while, some boy watched you: your closest friend, your greatest love. His face, his outstretched hands beckoning you to cartwheel across school lawns. When you shaved your head, empowered by some anarcho-feminist schpeel your lesbian friend gave you, you secretly wept in the bathroom at your own ugliness. Still, he thought you were beautiful, that you were courageous despite the facade. You told him to shut up, dropped words like zeitgeist, Derrida, and cataclysm to express your anguish at his objectification of your spirit. Still, despite the hurt, he smiled, whispered he didn’t mean it, he meant differently. I’m too good for him, you thought.

Senior year and he falls in love, some girl who tells you she admires your wisdom, is glad he’s got a friend like you. You smile, try to enjoy her stupidity, all your self-righteousness turned to shame on Friday night, 3am reading poetry and weeping. Fuck them all you say out loud, and fuck myself you say in quiet. Tell him you’re glad for him, that she seems nice. He smiles, thanks you.

Immerse yourself in school, those grades won’t ace themselves. Get a scholarship, leave, you are indeed, headed east, you are indeed, going to be beautiful. You will go where all the dreams are, where all the real people are. You feel the hollowness of your decision building up. Your mother says, now the big fish is swimming in the ocean, ruffles your hair. Go on then, but behave.

Drink your beers on the weekends, curled up on a hill beneath the rising sun. Visit your hometown playgrounds, stop waiting to be saved.

He finds you the day after graduation, crying, staring at the foliage of trees. He lies down beside you, quietly. You relive this memory, you pull the trigger, point blank.

He wants to say goodbye, good luck, that he will be here, he will be that small town boy for you. He will echo, he will ring inside your ears, strike a chord within your heart but it is seven in the morning, and the week has spun to its end, and you are snot-nosed, crying on his shoulder, packing mixtapes and postcards; gifts you will never send. His hand is hovering over yours, and your mouth is hanging open. You want to touch him but you leave.

First year, second year, cigarettes, beer, short-sighted professors, good people, and bad. You hide this all in a wisp of words and smoke, wear leather jackets and look grim, you are the dishevelled liberal arts major that you so desperately dreamt of being.

And then you come home, two years later, Christmas dinner in his home. There is a brief moment where your wrists touch, he turns and parts his lips. You are a bridge on fire, you tremble, you quake. I love him, that small town boy, you whisper to your newfound friend when you leave your hometown. She asks, haven’t you all along? She strokes your head, your hair is long, your hips are fuller.

Come summer and you want to tell him you love him. You are braver now, educated, empowered. So you do, and he nods, tells you he can’t. So you go into a bathroom, stare at your face, and through gritted teeth, promise yourself to love again, madly and blindly. You will learn to love and you will love all the strangers, until your heart is free of him.

You met each other at sixteen and you loved you him for his charm, his playfulness. Just as everything became a great game, the two of you toyed with each other. And just as everything became a great game, someone lost. You left with a bruised ego and a grim-set face.

Our parks become train stations, our cowboy rides become cars and planes and our leaps become flights across continents. Still, our problems are the same, our toys, bigger, more alive. Our lives on the playground cease to exist merely on the playground. We are ageing children in a widening playpen.

I keep remembering these snippets of who we were only to find that I don’t understand how we became who we are. I am experiencing the sudden realisation of the most basic things, and yet thousands of images, strange words and gestures, colours and feelings come to me and everything is lopsided and forgettable. I keep forgetting that the need to move on will devour me and that these sentiments are contemporary, are products of indecision, fleeting moments. I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to forget.

And now all our mutual friends are getting married. We see the beginnings of their futures, drunk rich folk in the suburbs they used to smoke weed in, rebel in, refused to ever return to. Marianne is turning into that lady in red nightdress smoking on her patio. Joseph and Ming are going to have beautiful interracial children. His mandarin is improving and her family has accepted the cultural disparities. There is the push and pull of all the directions that settle down into one linear line. Who are you to judge the happiness of others? Who were you to chase a dream that was not even yours? We never truly leave behind our homes. We carry them into everything.

Ten years later and the two of you revisit old landmarks: the beach, the old magic store, the river, Crocus Park, the university. You are reminded of the rain and the boy he used to be. You watch a stone sink into a pond and you see his face.

And the last time we spoke, we spoke little. Because I was leaving. Because I decided to begin a new game, one where I tried to live properly. And as I rose from the grass, you did nothing to stop me. You stared quietly at the sky. You were alive, chest rising up and down. Yet your eyes were motionless, mirroring the infinite possibilities and stillness of the sky.

Years later, cities later, breaths later, and strangers later, I meet a man who describes his visit to the Gobi Desert and his dream about butterflies. I am reminded of you, and so, I hold his hand tightly, letting go of myself, forgiving myself, and promising this time, not to leave, and never to let go.