I have to tell you something important, but first I have to tell you this:
I cut grass. I was 17. John helped sometimes. He was 72. He was a rough 72. He had had a stroke three years ago, and was acting as though he had not had a stroke three years ago. He rode the John Deere, loud like a demon, and mauled tree stumps and roots, because he wasn’t quick enough to steer away from them, and more so, because he didn’t care. The blades grew dull. He turned up the speed. The machine screamed. It was like that. He was like that.
Me, I pushed the little mower, leveled the side yards, all the little wildflowers, blazes of orange and purple all scattered around. I made my loops, lost my thoughts usually. My shoes turned green, the sun leathered my shoulders. I hit garter snakes sometimes. They sprayed everywhere, gold and black scales fluttering to the ground and all that. It wasn’t an on-purpose thing, of course. But I suppose that doesn’t matter to them.
Grass grew, I cut it.
I guess I would call myself John’s landscaper, so I guess the things he asked me to do were landscaping things, and really most of the time it was hell to understand what he was asking of me, because he had this voice like smoke, like his throat was all wet charcoal. But I was pretty determined then I guess, because I would always lean my head next to his split up lips and pick a word from his distorted voice: “lawn” or “brush” or “firewood” or “dandelions,” and honestly, when John said “dandelions,” it made the blood flare through my neck and blow up in my brain, because, let me tell you, John had a thing about dandelions.
John’s stroke was three years ago. It put half of him to sleep, that simple. John’s wife, Mary, left him two and a half years ago. John did not like that math. He did not like the way she gutted their little cabin in northern Wisconsin, did not like the way she jumped in that car he bought her and took off to some town in Missouri.
It was the talk of the town, the ethics of it, I guess you could call it. Mary, leaving this guy who was half-there, half-not. Some of the people from town, all oil-stained sleeveless shirts, clinking sweating Budweisers on the bar’s countertop, they’d say things about like how fucked up it was. How if she loved him she would have stayed. How he bought that cabin and all that land and everything for her, and how messed up it is that John still pays her bills from 800 miles away, how he loves her that much and he can’t stop, and it looks and seems a lot like, I dunno, she might not love him at all. Really, it is just shitty.
But, there were just as many people who’d clink their beer down too, who’d throw their greasy or saw-dusted hair back over their shoulders and would say, hey, no. The stroke was John’s fault, not hers. He had the stroke in the first place because of everything that was wrong with him, and what was wrong with him was that he wanted too much, they’d say: too much scotch, too many cigars, the lawn—ttoo perfect, the dust in the house, too gone, her attention, endless. He asked her to vacuum the rocks that lined his vegetable garden, for chrissakes, had her throw the trapped mice they caught a mile into the woods. Etcetera etcetera, on and on.
She should have left long before the stroke, honestly!
That’s what they’d say.
I didn’t know. I was 17. What I knew was that dandelions were Mary’s favorite flower, and that John didn’t think dandelions were flowers, and that when John would say “dandelions,” what he meant was that for two hours, I was going to slam a splinter-handled, dull, triangle-bladed tool-type thing into the earth of his yard a couple thousand times, that I was going to not just chop the dandelions down but I was going to dig the roots out—that I was going to get every last one and it’d better be like they were never ever there.
It made my hands bleed. His yard always looked like it had been struck by a few thousand little meteors, like if the whole thing was billowing smoke afterwards it would make sense. John would always hand me my twenty-dollar bill and a can of Pepsi, all cold on the cuts and sores on my hands, and he’d look out his window, at the yard, and say, “good.”
All of that is to say this:
I’m turning into John.
When you invited him, not John, but like, you-know-who, to stay with us, it made a lot of sense and it didn’t. I think you could say the same thing about him moving away from you to go to Seattle, too.
It felt like, kind of simultaneously, he left, he didn’t care enough to stay, and so you left him, and then he came back, and you and I had sort of fallen into each other. We had gone to Tennessee together and climbed the Smoky Mountains, and you had talked me through my parents’ divorce and I had talked you through yours. We just sort of collided once he left and it made us, or at least me, think that maybe this was always supposed to happen, like maybe we we’ve been on a collision course all along, and he was in the way; but also, he was my best friend too, and him and I maybe were destined to collide too, the way we got along like we’d always known each other, the way we talked that night in the closed library about the particular energies he finds in places like Minneapolis or Chicago or New York or Seattle, and I talked about the energy of a place like Witch Lake, or the Pine River or Wolf Pond or Meadowbrook Creek, and how we said we’re so different, but really aren’t, because honestly at the end of the day we’re looking for same thing in different places, and anyway, he came back from Seattle so suddenly, and he came back to win you back, and we both know that, and he didn’t know about you and I being what we were, about you and I just wanting to try, and when you invited him to live with us, it made a lot of sense, because we both loved him once, because you had been with him for two years and you’d done this thing before, and you’d gone everywhere together, every National Park, into the depths of each other and back.
And it didn’t make sense though, not at all, because when you invited him to live with us, to start sleeping on the couch in our living room, well, I guess it was you two’s old living room once-upon-a-time, too. But anyway, it made me start to ask all these questions, questions I didn’t feel like I had to ask a few months ago, like, why do you call him first when you need a ride, like why do you sit just inches from him but feet from me, why do you say his name then mine when we’re talking about that time we all did this or that, why do your pupils flare when he walks in the door and why are they just the smallest pebbles when it’s just me there—why do you get mad when I get mad about you two taking these walks down the beach while I’m asleep, and why, two nights ago, when you said his name during sex, did you finish, did you stand up, drape my shirt around you, and walk away, into your room, without a word?
I don’t know.
Maybe, the ethics of it is that I’m allowed to be upset about all of that.
But maybe, when I slipped through the door of your bedroom a half hour later, and I couldn’t stop myself shaking, and I laid next to you, silent, and I made you bring it up, and you said sorry, honestly, sorry, you’re important, honestly, it just happens, and please, I looked it up, it really is a common problem, and it doesn’t mean anything, please, remember the Smoky Mountains, just please, don’t go, and then I tried to jump out of bed anyway, and my jaw was locked I was so angry, and you jumped on me and told me, please, no, stay, and he was asleep in the living room, and I couldn’t stop myself, and you wouldn’t get off, and I would never, ever hurt you, and I said, “Don’t touch me,” and you kind of bridged your body off of me but still had me caged with your arms and legs, and so I couldn’t breathe anymore and I grabbed a fistful of your curtains, the ones your mom got you, and I ripped them to the ground, and the pole slid down from the rails in the loudest way and clanked on the wall all the way down to the floor, and I said, fuck, I’m sorry, fuck, I didn’t mean for that to happen, and I bent the pole straight and I tried to unlock my jaw and stay calm as I restrung the curtain and I put it back up, but then I was still angry, and you were balled up on the bed, and so I went into my room and I started packing, angry packing, furious packing, throwing jeans like baseballs into my bag, ripping the sheets from my bed and throwing them over my desk just because, that hair-tie of yours I always wear around my wrist – I ripped it off of me threw it into some corner of the room, and I kept raging around and bumbling like that, and then you opened my door and you stood there in the flooding light from the hallway, and he was asleep still, and you asked if I could please be quiet, and you said sorry, but I’m overreacting, and I knew you were right, I really did, but I’m not any-fucking-good, and that’s what I’m getting, because it just made me angrier when you said that, and when you said you were tired and wanted to go to bed, and I was welcome to come with, and I shouted at you to get-back-here, to try-to-understand-for-once, and you sat with me on my unmade bed, and I cried, and I would punch the bed and yell at you, and you’d say, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to say anymore.
You’ll find this on the floor, folded seven times, because I woke up around four this morning, and I thought I heard something furtive in the living room, and you don’t know this, but I’ve been practicing opening my bedroom door without a noise—and you don’t know this, but I peeked around the corner, into the room, and I thought I’d see you two tangled together, I thought you’d be a knot again, I thought your lips would sort of push through each other’s and I thought your spirits would lift from your body, yours green and his gold, and you’d be spinning through the room and you’d float together, dancing, through the window, and be gone forever.
But you weren’t. You were on different couches, doing different things, playing Diner Dash and reading sci-fi, and the silence was old, like you two hadn’t even talked in hours.
You’ll find this on the floor, because, tonight, while you two walked on the beach, I stripped my room clean. I dragged the mattress out the door, and I hid it in the trees behind our apartment, because it doesn’t fit in my car, and you might wonder why I didn’t just leave it there in the room, and it’s because I am no-good, because I want the empty of my room, if I’m being honest, to hurt as much as it can, I want it to be like I was never ever there, except for I was, I just want the lint from my clothes on the shelves, the rings from my mugs on the desk, and this note, in the center of the floor, to be what’s left of me, because, I realized something when I spied on you two last night: I am John, you are Mary, that maybe everyone is a John or Mary, and I know this because, two weeks ago, I looked in the mirror, all 22 years of me, and found ten gray hairs on my head. I know this because my constant questions were the constant cigars, the scotch, my sneaking out the door was the vacuuming of the rocks, my ripping down the curtain was the stroke, and if I’m right, you are the Mary, and you will leave in a few months, and everyone will think you were the asshole, and while I can’t fix what I’ve done, I can do this: I can go. I can be a better man than John was by taking a spoonful of Mary’s good heart before you have to, and I can go, I can go before there are dandelions to chop, before, like John, somebody from town goes to check on me, and they find me stiff, cold, and alone, clutching a towel to my chest, my upper-half on the bed, my legs straight and hovering above the floor from the magic of rigor mortis.
I will miss you. I will talk about you, wherever I go, maybe in a smoky voice, like you are a ghost. Every summer, when the sun becomes hot enough to wake the sleeping seeds, I want you to know, that honestly, that in my eyes, you will be, always, every precious dandelion, every cut on my hands, every blade of grass.
Brandon Hansen was bitten by a goose once. That is not all there is to him—but it just might be the most important thing. You can visit him on Twitter @BrandonH_84.