On the Common

The fading fall made the city came into a more vivid focus. The cold breath of oncoming winter lent outlines to the environment, a sharpness indiscernible in warm months. Every brick in every façade could be counted with ease, every branch of every tree–now bereft of the motley foliage indicative of the onset of the season–stood out against a sky of indifferent gray. A flock of pigeons spilled off a rooftop, displaced by a single crow whose head darted back and forth on his new perch. The flood of birds covered the scene for an instant before settling in the grass outside my window.

The cold clarity of the present made it hard for me to concentrate on anything but the landscape before me. But I forced myself to look down into my hands to remind myself of the letter, worn and creased by now. Its envelope had borne foreign postage and was from an old friend. She wanted me, of all people, to meet her today in an old park. Could I take off work for the afternoon? It was frowned upon, but possible, with a duly significant reason. Take it off, the letter urged. I was unprepared for its intimacy. The feeling of her presence rose so strongly from the two lines of small, thrilling handwriting that I was compelled to glance around in order to make sure she wasn’t already there at my arm, leading me away.

I made my apologies to my supervisor, who, encouraged by my mostly upright record, found nothing in herself to deny me–yet a boy in her eyes–a few extra hours on this Friday, and so I exited the building. I walked through the streets lined with the city’s humble beginnings and its future promises, the squat little squares that had been successfully saved from improvement because of historic ties. What could compel her to call on me now? What could be so important, after these years, after we had so definitely concluded our acquaintance? She had written guardedly, even indecisively, and had betrayed no sense of intention. My first thoughts were dark and troubling. These worries were shunted to the side momentarily when I first caught sight of the park, called ‘the common’ by locals, and I fell back into the past.

She was, by any standard, possessed of a true genius. I read snatches of verse, usually whatever was in front of me, but she had gone to school for that sort of thing and since I’d known her had written poetry and prose with immanent vigor and a high, impersonal talent. She had begun to attend the parties of the set of people who had begun to seek her out despite her youth, and perhaps because of her beauty. In truth, she was too good even for that crowd of authors, critics, and other corpses. She took me to one of these events long ago, before much of her notoriety, when I still knew her. She hadn’t even defended her thesis yet, and I was still staving off visions of a desk, inventory forms, and the possibility of life without her. We were together in the middle of the room. She held a champagne glass delicately aloft, it was the celebration of someone’s getting his new thing published, and I clutched a cup of punch fast to my heart like a talisman to ward off whatever I had imagined the danger of the place to have been. She smiled and took a step closer to me. “Thanks for coming with me tonight,” she said in the same melodious tone that I was accustomed to hearing over the telephone. It was only the rest of her that was hard to recognize.

I took a sip of my drink. “Is this alcoholic?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m pretty sure it might be.”

“Does it matter? Geez, you’re antsy tonight.”

“No, no,” I said, trying to collect myself. “I’m fine. I’m sorry. I’ll be better.” I relaxed my posture, though I still cradled the cup with both hands. “Look at you, though.” With pleasure I paused to take in the form that her unaccountable mess of pride, boredom, and tonight, the inherent disquiet of a newcomer, made up. “ Picture perfect.”

“Yes, look at me,” she said, suddenly grave, taking a long sip from her glass and stepping back as if to give me a better view. She didn’t often talk in obscure terms, so I answered her with a look of confusion, prompting her to explain.

“Let’s just say I don’t really think this is my scene,” she whispered leaning into me. Her natural scent was mixed with that of the merlot she had been drinking.

“Well, you carry it off, anyway. Even better,” I asserted with increasing conviction, “everyone’s noticing you. Some day this party will be for you.” She made a face of either appreciation or sympathy but didn’t say anything.

“You used to say that about home, you know,” I reminded her, more quietly.

“What did I say?”

“That it wasn’t your scene. You said it at the beach once.”

“No, I couldn’t have.”

“I remember it.”

“Hmm, well. If you say I did, than I must have. You’ve caught me again. I guess I’ll just have to find a new set to run with darling.” I fell silent and continued to nurse the fruit juice.

Eventually, one of the tweed battalion detached from the crowd and engaged us, which meant her. He approached from behind me, so I observed her replace the fleeting expressions of recognition and exhaustion on her face with artifice before I saw him. She grabbed champagne off of a passing tray. He planted himself directly between us so that I had a perfect view of the back of his new suit. He had heard of her! Oh he must be very attentive, than, she intoned. Not at all! She deserved the recognition, he insisted.

As I half-listened I began to understand that this gathering was being held in his honor. His new book—he manufactured them perennially—was a semi-autobiographical product about a young Protestant boy’s self-education in Latin and Greek amidst a household of factory workers. This leads him to many revelations. Much like all his others, she later told me.

“But my dear, the difference between modernism and post-modernism,” he said after hearing the title of her dissertation, with an upturned hand in the air as if serving the quip to us on one of the drink platters, “is simply the difference between ‘the center cannot hold’ and ‘there is no center to hold onto.’” A flurry of what I eventually discovered were self-quotations, as well as a few “excuse me old boy’s” when he made large gestures and backed up into me, ensued. Her ultimate response, a small laugh and a gentle application of her palm onto his upper arm, allowed her to make both his night and our escape.

We slipped through the crowd smoothly, offending no one and delighting many. The sight of each man that she disarmed with a quick nod of her head made my heart race. In my ignorance and fear of this whole other world of hers, I made out of every passing male face a rival to my desires. While she slipped through the bodies without contacting anyone, I had to excuse myself a number of times and even caused a plump woman to spill her wine as I tried to keep up while she tugged me along by the hand. When we arrived at the door, she clung to me. “Please, I can’t wait anymore. Take me home.”

“Where’s home?” I stammered.

“Your place.”

Before I could recognize a meaning in her answer, she was urgently hailing a cab. We arrived at my loft soon after. When I opened the door she brushed deliberately past me and slinked off to collect herself. I sat down and took off my jacket and tie and shoes. I began to unbutton my shirt, but thought that might be too forward. I lay down on my bed and tried to breathe regularly. She was only just beginning to allow me my first glimpses of her real life, after years of chastened companionship. What had I done differently? Could I carry it off again? I decided not to worry about that just yet.

As I turned my head I began to take notice of the light from the other room playing on the sheet as she moved about while washing up. Her slight frame cast almost no shadow, for which I loved her more. Only tiny slivers of darkness wound their way through the crags of thin material, darting in and out of sight. As she raised her arms to run her fingers through the silky auburn strands that barely brushed bare, freckled shoulders, her outline lengthened and almost reached out far enough to lie across my legs. As I watched her ghost run back off the bed, she appeared at the door, leaning on the frame. My eyes traveled along her body, from long, willowy legs and the beginnings of soft thighs, to the bottom of a black dress stretched tightly over the flare of her hips, a flat, subtle stomach, and marvelous round breasts. Her aristocratic neck held up a face–oh, her face. She looked into my eyes and flipped the light switch off for the first time.

The ground of the park was already frozen over. Nothing gave way as I stamped the turf carelessly, afraid to do more than glance around at the people milling about. Footballs and frisbees no longer clouded the air, but a few stragglers had not yet accepted the admonitions of the whipping wind. Peddlers still pushed their wares from carts; large pretzels and hand-made jewelry, and the more aimless fed birds from benches until children scattered the animals by charging through them. These things were all a part of the park, even the hurried senior businesspeople in tyrian ties whose trench coats billowed behind them like imperial robes as they returned from late lunches.

The scene yielded more and more detail the closer I observed it, getting frightfully clear, but it was no more inviting now then when I had entered it. I would have liked to have been done with it. I would have liked to have gone home. But I only sat down on a low wall next to a sleeping man in a tattered, vaguely military jacket who looked as if he had been there eternally.

We both stayed close to home for school. I did not want to move again, having just acclimated to a new life in the few years prior, and so I eased into one of the many institutions surrounding me. She had simply been admitted to the best possible place, which was very near us. Her writing could already be seen at the edges of popular esteem, and I had been, I think, the only one to read any of it beforehand. I was hurt, though, that none of it was full of the things I said to her, or at least the things she said to me. It was difficult to see her in her writing, except for the detached grace with which she kept everything, real or fictional, at a polite distance from herself. It might be said that her stories were as difficult to approach as she, and as easy to admire.

We did not visit each other very often in college, though we were just on opposite sides of the same city. I fought what I saw as the specter of her departure from my life by reasoning that she was only now experiencing her first induction into a society she would allow to understand and challenge her. I turned to the investigation of literature then, when time permitted, not to impress her–I didn’t dream so grandly– but just to get to know her. I had spent so much time with her, but now found that she was a different girl than just the pretty, clever, and occasionally restless thing I had first considered her to be. So I approached her obliquely, hoping to slip my thoughts under her notice.

She liked grandeur in her reading, though in her own life she was demure and aloof. I learned early that she only respected extravagance from afar. This meant that I never showed up to her school unannounced, and on my rare visits to her, I stayed only long enough to refresh and re-confirm my impression of her as—as what? A student? A scholar? A friend? More like, let us say, someone who, despite her early triumphs and her elevated outlook, still required me in some way. You see by now, I’m sure, that her essential nature evades not only her own writing, but my story too. Of course I could quote at length from most of her work, but, though as beautiful as the world is large, it wouldn’t help. Even if I can understand her so well myself now, I still find it supremely difficult to explain her to others. She had an utterly charming and indefatigable curiosity, and aroused as much interest in herself as she showed in so much else. But she was almost never overly affectionate, nor genuinely affable, nor, I don’t think, was she ever truly at ease. She was, and maybe continues to be, my opposite in many ways. Ultimately though, I had an always-increasing interest in her happiness, which, despite her hopeless desire for the new and different, only revealed itself when she was reminded of her home–something I did for her. It was partly because of this painful, fascinating, endearing contradiction that I found I couldn’t do without her either. So perhaps you can best know her by knowing me, and I am trying my hardest to reveal myself to you.

These years of our relationship, which planted themselves between an uncomplicated youth and an inevitable adulthood, were actually marked mostly by telephone conversations, which she even initiated sometimes. It was also the time when I was the least aware of her. While delving into my own experiences I forgot, for a while, to stop at hers. I made friends, had girlfriends, had lectures with professors whom I was convinced had changed my life, and her influence, though always weighing on me, retreated to the edges of my consciousness.

With her real presence receding then, it was her voice, which I could hear on the telephone and whose absence I could feel in her writing, that became so important to me in these years. The calls came once a month, perhaps, or more frequently if one of us had something to say. I tried earnestly to detect from her the notion of keeping up the connection with me out of habit or obligation, but all evidence was in favor of reliance and a genuine, deepening friendship. I listened eagerly for the hints she would drop about her accolades. She never announced them to me directly, but mentions of awards and grants and publications always found their way into the news she had to share with me.

Now I think that the sidelong mentions of her successes allowed her tell me about the new things that were overwhelming her without betraying any of her anxiety or inexperience, but at the time I took them for unavoidable hints at things important to her, things which a modesty I had assumed in her character prevented her from telling outright.

She called me once. I do not remember the year, though I could approximate, but I do remember that the low sun had given an orange tinge to the campus landscape outside my room. After I answered, we found ourselves adrift in amiable pleasantries for a while. The gaps between our talks were always great enough that we could rest comfortably in each other’s little details for a while before charting any new course. Things were going well for her, as usual. I was the same as ever. Was I still seeing that girl, oh, what was her name? No. A shame. And her? Was there anyone? A laugh. We floated along down this familiar way for a while, steering in no particular direction, content to engage with whatever we happened upon. But these calms don’t last forever, and eventually a quickening current pressed us on.

“Anything new come out?”

“Come on, you’re making fun of me. You know it has.” I could hear her smiling.

“I read it, but didn’t know it was you until the byline. You’ve never really been to Venice, have you?”

“No. I’ve never been anywhere.”

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“Do what?”

“Write about things you don’t know the first thing about.”

“What else is there? It’s the only thing I can do. Would you rather I go on about beaches and small towns and what it’s like to be meeting new people in college?” She emphasized the last word, not without a note of distaste. I took a breath.
“Sometimes, yes. Maybe.”

“Why do you want that, I wonder. What’s the use? Everyone’s already living it. And—we aren’t in a good place for great stories. Nothing important ever happened to us, not that anyone else would care about.” Then, silence lasting just too long. “It’s not so hard, you know, going out of yourself. It’s even a relief, just imagining.”

“If I were a writer,” I began, but checked myself, “though I suppose I’m not . . .”

“No, what?” she prompted, with new interest in her voice.

“Honestly, never mind. How’s your dad?”

“Well then let me guess,” she asked playfully. This was a game she enjoyed. Up to this point I had been imagining her at her cluttered desk, making her pen, which hung just above a fresh piece of notebook paper, waltz through her fingers. Now I saw her lying in her bed, clad in something comfortable, the movie she had been watching frozen on the screen since she had decided to pick up the telephone. I know at least that she must have taken on a posture of mock–was it mock?–haughtiness, shoulders back and chin up, because of the tone she then adopted. “You were going to say that if you were a writer, you would write about what you know, which is your life, and not only would everyone who read you know your characters through their common rituals and trials, and not only would they know the human experience through the quotidian practitioners of it, but they would know you, too, and they would know everything else through you.” She stopped, and I think relaxed into her layer of pillows again. “I can hear you smiling.”

What was there to say? She was a girl on whom nothing was lost. “I guess I owe you a coke then,” I said, according to our rules. “Shall I bring it to you next week?”

“Oh, next week isn’t so good. What about the one after?”

“We’ll work something out soon.”

After sitting for some time on my stone seat, I became very cold and sore. I got up achily and began walking deeper into the common, despite lingering feelings of intrusion and a worry that I might miss the rendezvous. Trees were placed sparingly, the land mostly given over to sprawling grass for people to lie out on in the summer and to let their dogs roam, and for gazebos and statues of abolitionist heroes and war generals. The land had, in centuries past, been a place where the people of the city could bring their animals to graze and a theater for public hangings, but it had been re-imagined in the 1800’s by a famous landscape architect to be a sedate urban jewel. Until the appearance of the letter, it was just a park I went to sometimes.

We met early, when I was transported by my parents away from a hale and contentedly limited existence in a rural part of the middle of our country and to the promised land of the Northeast, where it was assumed that I was to find enlightenment and lucre. In spite of the hope, however, of gaining a wider understanding of the wider world, I really only exchanged one point of view for another equally narrow. But that was all to come.

When I first met her by what she called ‘the water’ and what I called ‘the Atlantic Ocean,’ it was warm, and I still bore the marks of my distinction— an accent, since suppressed, and an innocence of perception, since set aside. She came up to me as I was only sitting on a bench along the sea wall, wondering if the waves ever really did overtake the concrete. “Hi. Is anyone sitting here?” She sat down without waiting for a response. I nodded briefly, but then resumed staring forward, unsure what subsequent course local politesse dictated I take, and she stayed silent for a time before trying to engage me. She ended the lull by extending her hand almost to the point of touching my chest with her fingernails and told me her name. I gave her mine in return and mentioned that I thought names like hers were the best for girls, at which she returned a look of suspicious interest. I was quick to offer her a ridiculous little explanation: “A name with three sounds, the strongest at the front, and then, sort of trailing off . . .” She laughed happily and I think maybe started to name my observation, but then only sat back on the bench and followed my gaze outward to the bay. Who can say what she thought of me at that instant? I really did not say what I did in order to flatter her. It was only the first thing that came to my mind.

When she began speaking again, I enthusiastically returned her amiable advances. Noting the sound of my voice, she asked where I was from. “I love it there,” she said dreamily.

“Oh, have you been?”

She shrunk back sheepishly from me for a moment. “No, I haven’t. I just meant—I know I would love it there. And my cousin had a farm in the north that he used to tell me about. I wanted to ride so badly when I was young. Did you have horses?” I answered that I did. “Do you miss them?” I did not.

“So, you don’t mind me sitting here?” she asked after scrutinizing me a little bit longer.

“No, of course not.” I replied haltingly. “Should I?”

“Oh—I’m not really sure.” She shrugged apologetically and looked around. Her eyes darted back and forth quickly as she perched on the edge of her seat. Her features were avian. Her hair was swept back and her mouth tiny, her limbs lithe and her back rigid. “I thought maybe you might have liked to be alone.”

While I was flattered by her interest in where I used to live, a place that must have registered only as a dim suggestion of another world to anyone else in my new hometown, it was the position of her body that first won me to her. Though we were sitting side by side, her toes pointed toward me as we spoke. Her orientation was all ease and comfort, but it gave the impression of an urgent attentiveness and a great capacity to understand. Or, I may have sensed only simple kindness. My competing visions of hindsight, though, matter not so much as the fact that our meeting at the water led to both more meetings, and to my first new friendship. She was my entry into the culture of the sleepy seaside hamlet–a culture she described with one lazy wave of her hand–both because she knew so many people, and because she actually drove me around. If I felt this emasculated me, the feeling was overruled by my pleasure at having my company desired. I mostly only trailed her and nodded along at what she said at the parties held in the houses of vacationing or willfully ignorant mothers and fathers, but, due in part to her effortless popularity, I managed to make many friends by association, a lot of whom I continue to be close with still. I was almost instantly comfortable among those people in a way that I don’t think she–ever somewhere else–could have achieved.

When she wasn’t bringing me around the town, she walked with me to the sea wall, that stalwart barrier, and we would go right up to it at high tide on windy fall nights to see the water crash into it. On one such evening we stood there looking out into a deep dark and talking about nothing–our home, our friends, the prospect of moving away for college–when a wave, galvanized by some dying storm that had crept on hands and knees up the coastline, rained down a cold shower on us. I worried briefly that the moment that we had been enjoying was spoiled, but she laughed and raised her hands in cheerful shock. She was dazzling. Almost unconsciously I slid my hands around her waist and pulled her toward me finally, and she met me.

I do not often think of that moment. The thrill is mostly washed away, replaced by more vibrant stuff, but it still catches when recalled. She did not pull away from me. She let me linger on her lips as long as I pleased, lips which tasted like the sea, and which were so different from another pair of rough, sunburned ones I had actually thought myself lucky to have touched in my birthplace. But she did nothing more. When I was through, she was further away. We remained young friends as before and did not mention that night ever again. In fact, I only mention it now for the first time to you.

Oh, yes, I did think I saw her, just there, by the ice skating rink. But no. I was mistaken. Let me hurry on and explain us a bit better. Let me try to overcome my memory. Then I will leave.

We were together for a while after the soiree for her colleague. She would come to my apartment, stay a bit, and then go. We never talked about her success, which was by then increasing steadily. When I brought it up she would kiss me, or become coy. We existed for some months outside of time, even though my days carried on much as they ever had. My moments with her, deep in the night and at the fringes of morning, were what I lived for. My earlier memories of her were dulled, as were all thoughts of a future, I regarded her in the now, as a manifestation of a beautiful present

One day she greeted me earlier than usual. I opened the door at her knock and we exchanged only hellos. We were not casually intimate. Never a peck on the cheek, only long embraces. I do not think either of us could help it. She was holding a letter limply in her hand, what looked like an important letter. “What’s this?” I asked, as she handed it to me.

“The magazine, they’ve finally accepted me,” she replied in a monotone.

“But that’s wonderful. Isn’t it?”

“I’ve also been given an advance for something longer.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to leave to write it.”

“You do? But why?”

“I just have to go. I’ve already found a place.” She told me where.

“That’s very far.”

“It’s the only place.”

“For how long?”


She was willing me to challenge her, but I had few ways to accomplish this. I had made no claims on her, nor she on me. The door was still open and she stood just inside. I made a motion and she walked in further, but she did not take off her coat. I watched her with indescribable longing as she passed me. She stopped in front of my bed and turned around to face me with a confrontational posture. I wasn’t up to it. If I were given the chance again, would I tell her that even Venice and the remotest parts of the earth are common to an uncountable many? Could I have explained that the exotic is predicated on not only an innocent fascination, but also a heedless one? And that she overlooked instantly wherever she was, simply because she was there? No, I think not. Does it matter?

“Well it’s not as if I love you,” I said sulkily as I shifted my feet. She stared at me. I could not tell what she was thinking but her expression was severe.

“Don’t you?” she asked shrilly, after a silence, still braced above the untidy sleeping place.

I stared back at her and eventually said “no,” and then, “what if I did?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. She sat down abruptly on my bed, her eyes still on me. I was still standing across the room, fiddling with the letter.

“Do you love me?” I said. She sighed and looked away at my bedside table where some of her own possessions sat. “I love you.”

“Oh God. I’m sorry. I’m going away,” she answered. I dropped the paper onto a chair.

“I’m sure you’ll make our town proud,” I returned, hoping to inject a lot of bitterness into my voice. But as always I felt naked and inadequate when exchanging words with her and quickly became embarrassed at what I had said. She was so genuinely upset, she did not retort. She rose and pressed herself lightly into me, looked at me impassively, and then opened the door. Even at that instant I recognized what was happening, I recognized that my flirtation with the uncommon, with the extraordinary, was over, and so I savored her last touch, her smell, her face, her walk, the back of her head, the sounds of her step on the stairs and of her exiting the building, and the sight of her walking down the street and turning the corner.

My unavoidable fugue lifted soon after she departed. I went to work as before, and no one noticed a difference. I regained the companions I had been neglecting to see as often without too much fuss. I read her novels, true masterworks, and everything else that appeared, as, of course, she was nowhere in any of it. I would not call my sudden tranquility patience, as I was not waiting for anything in particular. It only seemed to be the end of something without another beginning to follow it, an impression that lingered, waltzing around my head and in the distance. All of a sudden, meaning had subsided, quietly replaced by a humdrum serenity. This warm flatness lasted a long time.

And now, here I was, on the common. Meeting these recollections again in the present has done nothing to unburden me of their renewed clarity or their significance. At all those moments I was not able to imagine a parting from her, but now, with all of them behind me, a complete story, another chance seemed even more impossible. We had met. We had kissed. We had loved each other, I think. We even danced once, though, did I mention that? And she had quit me. What’s left? Does she even still exist to be pursued? Why would she re-open the past? Where in this expanse were we supposed to have met? Why should I be holding onto any hope that she would ever understand anything? I stopped walking and finally turned my eyes to the homeward path, and there I saw her— present, clear, and just standing there, as if she had been the one waiting for me all along.

Dan Forward graduated from Boston College with a degree in English and now attends Suffolk Law School in Boston.