There are songs I associate with moments in my life. Like Autumn Leaves, She Loves You, and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. And then there’s the song that reminds me of James. Killing Me Softly With His Song. When I hear it, my heart becomes immersed in a firestorm of melancholy. A bittersweet fragrance of love and longing and what could have been, ricocheting between my heart and my soul.
My entire being feels the poignant sorrow of Robert Flack’s song, and her voice becomes mine:
“Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song,
Telling my whole life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song.”
Each time I hear the song, I am once again 17, laying in the crook of his arm and he is holding me close. I can feel his fingers curling around the tendrils of my hair that fall loosely around my face. We are forever young. Forever with our entire lives before us, and wishing we could stay like this for five more minutes. So many ways I loved him, but never was it enough. Not for me.
In college I learned important life lessons–on growing up, on relationships, and on being on my own. And during those years, after I had settled into my dorm, and James had enrolled in a school three states away, we began a correspondence. I would look forward to his letters that described his life, his classes, his new girlfriend. We found our own way to stay connected, never talking about the past or what happened during my senior year. And then one day, during the summer after my graduation, I saw James one last time.
And when I did, he was killing me softly all over again. James. My beautiful boy. The ache in my heart is real.
I found the letters you wrote me in college. They all end in the same way: “Write soon. Love, James.”
What happened? Why did your letters stop? Did I forget to respond to your last one or was it you who stopped? How did we drift away from each other in the end?
Maybe the answer is in the last day we saw each other, when I was just out of college, still living in Boston, and you were living in Manhattan.
I met you in the city for lunch. You were taller now, more confident and relaxed. A tall drink of water in your jeans and white tee.
It was a warm sultry day and frankly, I had no appetite. I was too excited to see you and not knowing what the next move would be. We lunched on sandwiches and chips, but I barely touched my plate. I was in your presence, James, don’t you get it?
We were just catching up. That’s what we did. You told me how you were planning on medical school, and I was getting ready to study journalism. You mentioned having a girlfriend, and I told you about the guy I was living with that summer.
As we talked, it didn’t take long for the sparks to ignite once more. But when lunch was over and we stood up and were out on the sidewalk again, something happened. You felt it, too, James. And you took me in your arms and held me tight. We kissed and then we kissed again, your lips lingering on mine.
You said your apartment was nearby. We could walk and be there in less than five minutes. Which is what we did. And we spent the rest of the afternoon making love like we never could before. Not then.
But it was different now. We were both of age and the worries of youth fell away as we held each other under the blankets in your apartment in the city. There were no mothers to discover us and bring an end to our passion. Instead, there was an attraction, wild and deep. The clock kept ticking and soon it would be time for my train back to Boston.
Too soon we said our goodbyes in Grand Central Station. A forlorn gaze in your eyes. It had been four years since high school, and you were still pushing your long hair out of your eyes. We hugged one last time, and I know you were already regretting it. Still, you watched as I walked away, becoming an insignificant dot in the crowd. I kept turning around to see if I could spot you, and noticed that you hadn’t moved at all, your feet firmly planted just were I had last left you. It’s painful to remember how much I loved you that day. Only I was too afraid to tell you. Too much time had gone by. What is it they say? Oh yes, I was a day late and a dollar short. That’s what it was.
Well James, to this day I’ve kept your letters. I’ve read them so many times that the paper is worn thin in places, the ink smudged. I treasure these mementos, James. They’re all I have left–proof that once we were. It’s sad that nobody writes letters anymore.
This concludes my Lightning in a Jar series. David Sedaris once wrote of his own youthful dalliance, “Given the short amount of time we spent together, its silly how often and how tenderly I think of him…When you’re young, it’s easy to believe that such an opportunity will come again, maybe even a better one.”
Sedaris is right, for I once thought I’d one day meet someone else as good as James, and as true.
But alas, a love like that comes along once and trying to recapture it is like trying to capture lightning in a jar.
Thanks for reading, and to all, a very Happy New Year.