I remember when my world divided into male and female, when the girls screamed “Shaun has cooties!” across the playground and flushed with what I thought was anger. I remember being in a closet with the enemy, chapped-lipped and terrified but trying to pucker up for victory. It doesn’t change as you get older, you just get taller and the stakes get higher. You may even start bargaining: If we’re both forty and haven’t settled yet, come find me. We’ll figure something out. Get hitched. People do that, right?
I’m out here in the woods because I’m trying to make good on an old bargain. It’s cold. The wind bites through the loose-knit scarf my late wife made for me years ago. I wear it anyway because I still love her and because such things are endearing to other riven people.
Incidentally, eternal love is also endearing to other riven people. It makes them feel they’re off the hook a little.
I stuff my hands into my jacket. It’s big and red and perfect for the January bitterness but nonsense on a date. I say again: this is a date. I asked Rowan out on a date because I’m a sap, because three times we promised that if we were still single at forty, we would try to do life together.
I confessed my feelings in middle school, in a carefully creased origami letter. Her reply—her promise—was a work of adolescent genius. It kept me going until we promised again in high school under a more hormonal haze, sexual tension stretched tight over a greasy diner table and smelling of bad coffee. We promised one more time one year into college as she gathered her courage to ask out our university’s star soccer player and I offered myself as a fallback as she laughed.
She’s forty. I am thirty-eight. Our spouses are gone. I blow warm air into my hands, blink at the baby-blue sky, and bounce on my toes.
Somewhere, in my aggressively conservative upbringing, a guidance counselor drilled into my head that “Exotic is Erotic.” I think he was trying to explain why being gay was bad, but I heard different laws for my libido: I must not fall for anyone I’d grown up with. There was not, for instance, sufficient distance between me and my best friend’s sister. There wasn’t enough distance between me and my fifth-grade crush—the girl who, during our end-of-the-year concert, so commanded my attention that after my clarinet solo I bowed in her direction and off the stage, four feet onto buffed linoleum.
And there was certainly only platonic proximity between me and Rowan, who had grown up in the same church.
But that’s the thing about riven people. Our losses tend to drive us back into familiar places. After my mourning period passed all I could dream about was going to bed with somebody I’d known all my life. I have two tweens living in the abscess left by my star-crossed adventure. All I want is for the first half of my life to take me back, tuck me in, say it’s glad I’m home.
So, I’m here in the woods, waiting for Rowan, two years grief-addled and taking a twenty-year promise too seriously.
And yet I’m sure—sure as the peeling birches, as the feeling I’ve lost in my fingers—that I’m supposed to be here. On days like this, when Rowan and I were kids, the clear glare of the midwinter sun gave us reason enough to stare at each other. We’d lock eyes because neither of us wanted to go blind. My pale green and her hazel were preferable to the sun’s tyrant yellow. We didn’t need reasons beyond that.
We spent summer nights under willows watching the sunset. She’d droop into my lap and blame it on the hike. One blazing hot day in the ocean, the current pulled at her tiny frame and she reached for me to steady her. The thrill of small dangers meant she forgave me when I touched her breasts, which hadn’t quite come into their own yet. Years later, on similar sweltering days, we’d go wading in the creek. She wore her first bikini, and neither of us were afraid of where our hands landed anymore.
We’re long past that, now. All our summers since have been spent with other people. If we’re going to share them again, we must start back at the beginning: in winter, in the middle of the woods, each with an arm around the other pretending we’re trying to keep warm.
I hear a car door slam and turn, feeling warmer already. She appears from behind the tree line, crunching her way across frost-glazed ground. She waves, gives me that brilliant, full-lipped smile that hasn’t changed since we were twelve. Her brown hair is braided in familiar pigtails. She blinks with wet, half-open eyes that have felled many boys besides me. She wraps her arms around my neck; a soft kiss lands on my cheek with a happy, “It’s so good to see you.” Her touch is oddly cold just under my ear, so I take her hand in mine and, at a glance, remember she too is riven people.
“You’re still wearing your ring.” It’s not odd to start this way, it really isn’t. Plenty of people have questioned me the same way. What we’re missing in time we make up for—must make up for—in shared circumstance.
“Actually, that’s what I’ve been wanting to tell you about,” she says, smiling, and looking at the cold, clear band.
We walk for more than an hour, a five-mile circuit around the preserve. She tells me all about Adam, to the tune of dead leaves, and I do not say a word.