The weird thing about getting older is how people stumble into my life whom I haven’t seen in years, it’s a time loop, someone whose whereabouts were unknown, and then never knew why sends you a friend request and then there’s direct messages and that person you pined for isn’t dead or missing, there are three dots that go from gray to white which means she is typing about the disappearing act, the fucking totally understandable disappearing act.
There’s a cassette tape I got rid of recently. The handwriting on the tape’s sticker, Mix For Sarah was clear, the curves of my a’s and h’s were smooth. Must’ve been sober when I wrote it.
I don’t remember the first time I saw Sarah, but I remember her orange shoulder bag, her teal glasses and her hair sliding down her shoulders. and that she held my gaze when my eyes drifted back over to her side of the room.
I didn’t really talk to anyone in the class, but somehow she was there when I was there.
At the time I was what I’d call terminally single. Undateable, so lost in my own world that I could barely keep my own act together
I believed love would never happen to me.
Sarah was the first kind of any new relationship since I’d moved to Oregon.
My last girlfriend recently moved to Washington DC to work for the President of the United States, George W. Bush.
Did I mention I was new into town?
I’d been laid off, twice.
Online dating was going well,there was the woman who told me I was the least interesting person she had ever met. She said it to my face in a booth at a nice restaurant. Got up and walked out.
A few months later, I’m in Ed 103.
Ed 103 was a psychology class that many ed majors needed if they wanted to attend grad school to be a teacher.
I didn’t want to dunk tank this school situation like I had all the other times school got hard and I needed someone to study with,so at some point I asked the girl with the orange purse and the teal glasses and the hair sliding down her body if she needed a study partner.
I learned her name.
Her eyes did this cute half moon thing when she didn’t know I was watching her. She’d look up inside her brain for the thought she was looking for. And the whites of her eyes would show.
Most people, when they are deep in thought, they are impenetrable, but with the whites of her eyes I could see the kind of person she was, or maybe I was the only one she let see the whites in her eyes.
We quizzed each other at the back of the PSU Library. She was thinking about being a teacher too, and the next thing we knew we were dating.
She was so cautious, there was a friend along for the first few dates we went on. Third wheel like it was the most natural thing in the world. The old fashioned-ness of it felt nice, someone who was kind of serious about certain things.
What I didn’t realize was that her Mom had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer, and she was going to go about this in a way that I hadn’t seen before.
The old fashioned-ness of it, how she made me wait, I’d see this physical side to her affection, with a hug or even a kiss at the end of the night. but then it would slip away and it would be our brains going at it instead.
We both had overactive brains that were always on the grind. Our brains tore at our bodies, picked welts, scratched scabs, tore at our cuticles, made little pools of blood on our thumbs. We smeared blood on our hands during job interviews. We held our jaws too tight, we needed mouthguards, retainers, braces, some rubber gauze composite we could sink our teeth into.
I could tell by the way she applied her nail polish, she had just recently gotten to where she made the lines between skin and nail smooth. Back in grade school she and I were the messy kids, the space cadets.
Close up on a stuttering mess of a boy, and a shy deadhead of a girl, fingerprints on their glasses, smiles held in by braces, half of their faces under construction.
I met her mom in a hospice care unit in Olympia, WA. She had a green and white flannel coat sweater. Her Mom’s hairs had recently been released from their curlers.
We’d only third wheeled it a few times by this point, but we took the trip up to Olympia together. We went with friends. Sarah’s Mom was dying and I wanted to be as supportive as I could be.
At the house we rented by the Lake, with her friends we sat around leaned into our coffees.
There was an electricity in how her friends treated me, like even though nobody said anything, they knew how special I was to her.
“This is Adam” Sarah said, we were sitting down in her room, me in one chair, Sarah closest to Mom.
Her mom there, sat up in bed in hospice care, her flannel shirt over white undershirt, propped up excited to meet the new guy. Her mom in the corner, smiling at what Sarah was reading, then smiling over at me.
She was happy for Sarah, excited even.
But in the back of her Mom’s mind, she knew. Our relationship was so new.
And here’s that 2020 conversation we have online about this specific time. The three dots that slide back and forth before a paragraph pops up in my blue and white window. It’s the voice I’d been missing for 10 years. She has the same memories as me, she remembered the book title Sarah read to her Mom that Day, The Golden Compass, after we stood in the empty part at the corner of Puget Sound, the still waters, a chill to air, we kissed, but she had other things on her mind.
How often are we first attracted to how a potential mate’s brain works, that and when she stood up in class, her fashion sense halfway between bohemian and professional, cute teal glasses and long hair that slid down her shoulders, the bulk of orange in her purse hit brain cells I didn’t know I had. The color of green blue in her eyes, the way they sat there, floating, like there was an electricity to this world she was hip to.
And both of us, we rode on that wonder.
I saw her there, her watching me, watching her, creative over-thinker to creative over-thinker.
So many times, I’d feel these waves of emotions, where we wouldn’t say anything, how could we put all the things that weren’t said into the world. We held onto each other for as long as we could.
There was this thing that was building up between us that contained all the things we didn’t say, couldn’t say, the silent place I called it. The silent place contained all the things Sarah and I couldn’t say to each other. The weight of it, that growth in her Mom’s brain, Stage 4 cancer.
The silent place was an island contained in an ocean only she and I had access to. What I didn’t know was the silent place would get so big that it would eventually handle all of the communication between us.
What I didn’t know was the silent place was doubt, and doubt is heavier than hope.
It wore on us.
I had to reach out to her, to let her know I was living in this space for a little while and it only seemed right to tell her.
“Hi this is Sarah, I’m not home right now, leave me a message”
Which is where our floating three dot online conversation comes in.
Is it a conversation that doesn’t feature the static monotone of a phone line adaptation of the sound of their voice, but the real time fumblings of the keyboard.
What she said to me in that window next was the exact thing I wanted to hear all those years ago, that I had imagined, but never did know, if by caring too much I just scared her off.
“I’m sorry I hurt you Adam.” The dots attached to Sarah said, “You are such a good man. “
Sarah and I out there, wandering from state of mind to state of mind, from country to classroom, we were on the same path for a good month or so, then she had to walk away.
She knew I wanted in.
All that time I thought my earnestness made the decision worse.
“I’m glad you found someone who got that right away and didn’t blow it.”
We saw each other 2-3 times after the visit to the nursing home. Then a few phone calls, her Mom was doing worse. Now she went up to Olympia alone.
She called me a few times, the calls got more and more spread out.
I called once more, maybe twice. I could hear her there in the room, and even though we weren’t that physical I could feel her body against mine.
When I hung up on the phone, that was the last time.
But I’ll never forget being that close to a huge relationship, we had something, but we never got a chance to figure out what that was.
She’s found someone and so have I.
But that feeling, that’s the thing I coast on. It’s a very particular flavor of heartbreak.
I could open up my own ice cream parlour with 39 flavors of heartbreak.
It was my first cellphone. Mix for Sarah was the last mixtape I ever made.
The thing was there was so much that happened to Sarah and I just after that. Me to grad school then Janet then teaching.
Sarah’s dad died next, then Italy, then grad school.
There was the Sarah of 2002, trying to grow up from the Sarah of 1992, and she had that all over her, and I had it too. The too many drinks too many times, the stains on the shirt I wore and the stain on her shirt. We try to dress up and be proper, but we are still the slobs we were in College.
The single years, the when is Adam gonna meet someone, she had that too.
The worried Sarah’s mom wore that day. The sunk nuclear self confidence. We were two people coming into our own at the exact time, which was also the beginning of a year of loss and grief and wandering for her, and for me, I had finally stopped wandering.
Funny how things work, you don’t get to know the end until years later, after you’ve changed and those old things that used to hurt you don’t hurt anymore.
There was this little narrative she sent me, and it brought me right back to where I was.
As she put it.
“Remember being at your house and you told me about a conversation you had with your sister about me and she cautioned you not to lead with the heart too fast. My heart was breaking, more like exploding at that moment. I don’t think any human being could have fixed me. I had to drift for many years after that.”
Last lines of these three moving dot conversations, they cement moments, memories, the next time you go to message them, there it is, the thing you’ll remember, the thing I had to wait almost twenty years to get, the closure.
Adam Strong is the author of the novel, Bella Vista, and the founder of the Songbook PDX reading series. His work has appeared in the Atticus Review, Nailed Magazine, Gravity of the Thing and in the anthologies City of Weird, The Untold Gaze, and How Anything can Grow from this, a benefit for RAICES. He writes and loves in Portland, OR.