Jack held the book high, almost touching the dark, ominous clouds that hung low overhead. All the things he wanted to tell her, but never did were written on the pages and locked in the journal. For the last week, Jack wanted to forget every word that he had ever written about her, and he had concluded that the only way to do that was to destroy them. And what better way than to catapult them into the river where it had all begun. He was standing on an empty pier overlooking the spot where they had had their first encounter. His right hand clutched the book. He wound his arm back like a pitcher ready to throw a curveball, and took aim. He took a few deep breaths, but with each of them, he lost a slice of courage. He had lost her, but these words were a part of him, torn from his heart, pulled from his lonely soul, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, phrase by phrase. He couldn’t lose them too. The loss was too much for him to handle. Defeated, he lowered his arm and sat down on an abandoned, rusty lawn chair laced with used and useless fishing wire.
His mind was mushy, murky, and tired. It had been seven days since he had seen Rae kissing someone else outside of Buddy’s Breakfast Bungalow. He lowered his shoulders, tightened his eyes and shook his head in a slow deliberate way as if to dislodge the disbelief that had attached itself to his cerebrum with sticky glue. Since the previous Saturday he had written until his hand hurt, until the words dripped from his head like a leaking faucet. He had meant to send the journal to her, but then, chickened out. He was such a loser. Maybe that’s why she had ditched him, because he had disappointed her in the same way he had disappointed himself.
He opened the first page of the journal, something he had done a million times in the last few days, and could do a million more and still not be satisfied.
“Oh Rae, why? What did I do wrong?” Jack repeated as he drifted back to the first time he had met her eight months prior.
He had been at his best friend Matt’s house after a Friday night football game. They had just beat a tough team. Everyone was feeling high. Matt’s parents were out of town, so he had invited a few people over. When Jack arrived (after driving his little sister to a sleepover) the party was in full swing. Jack generally disliked socializing, but Matt had threatened to post one of his swoony poems in the men’s locker room if he didn’t come. It was a viable threat and one he didn’t want actually happening. His poetry was still personal, still something he didn’t wanted to share.
Jack parked on the street, walked down the main drive and around back to the pool house, which was twice as big as his own home. He passed some freshman girls huddled together giggling under a pergola decorated with stringed lights and kept his hands in his pockets and his head down. His intention was to make an appearance, then get back home to work on his portfolio. He aimed to get into the writing program at NYU, his dad’s alma mater, but still sort of a long shot. He headed towards the game room in the pool house, where he hoped to find Matt playing on the vintage pac man arcade machine. As expected, Matt was there, racking up points, with his girlfriend Sara alongside cheering him on. Several others were mingling about, dancing, talking, acting stupid.
That’s when he saw her.
Rae had golden brown hair that fell in big waves over her shoulder and down her back. One look at her and his curiosity kicked into overdrive. He thought immediately of how she resembled the mysterious woman in his dreams the last few nights, who had whispered secrets of the universe in his ear—secrets he willed to remember in the morning, but never did. Initially, he thought that he must be dreaming, but as he walked towards her, the nightly apparition turned out to be very real. So real, that when she touched his arm and leaned close to ask him where the beer was, he nearly toppled from how hard his heart was beating. Things like this didn’t happen in real life—dreaming about a stranger and then meeting them. Somehow he got it together enough to reply to her.
“I’ll get you one,” he shouted back over the loud music. He stared at her way too long, marveling at how the smile that grew across her face made his insides turn upside down. She smelled like cinnamon and honey, and he was suddenly famished.
When he returned from getting a six-pack from Matt’s secret stash in the fridge in the upstairs bedroom, he panicked when he didn’t see her. One of the girls she was with pointed outside and said something like “air.” He found her then on the deck that wrapped around the pool house, to the side, away from the other kids, staring out across the lake, to the spot where the full moon’s reflection met the glassy water.
“Hey,” he said and handed her the beverage. Out here, the music was softer and he could hear himself speak. He waited on edge to hear her voice, to confirm she was real.
“Hey,” she replied, took a sip. “Thanks, it’s good.”
“I made it myself.”
“So, here we are.”
“Here we are.” For someone who loved to write, to talk, to communicate, Jack was suddenly at a loss for words. He reached for a Hemingway quote, or at the very least, something witty to say, but failed on both accounts. “Great weather for September, eh?”
He was such an idiot, talking about the weather with a beautiful girl. She’s going to walk away in two minutes if I don’t get my act together, he silently chided himself.
“I guess the weather is good. But I don’t mind the winter. You get used to it in Canada. I’m new here by the way, and don’t know a lot of people, except for my cousin, Annalise. Do you know her?”
Canada. He had never met someone from there before. He didn’t know what he expected, but not this kind of gorgeous. He tried to focus.
Jack nodded. Annalise McKensie was the world’s biggest gossip. How did he not know she had a gorgeous cousin who was now living here.
“You go to school at RHS?”
“Yes, junior. You?”
“I’m a senior.” He said. Then paused, noting her shift. “You’ll get the hang of things.”
Her eyes returned to the water, then the shore. He had an idea.
“Have you seen Riverview from the water yet?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“You don’t have a fear of water do you?”
“I’m on the swim team. Why?”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
He led her down the deck, to the beach, where a stack of paddleboards and surfboards were laid across wooden pegs on a stand. He picked one of the sturdier ones and with her help, brought it down to shore. They took off their shoes and then she got on while he launched her and the board into the water. He waded in, his shorts getting mostly wet, but he didn’t care. She sat cross-legged on the board, her tan and athletic legs meeting her patchwork jean shorts at just the right length to be distracting. But Jack was a gentleman and kept his eyes on the water, or her illuminated face, which he couldn’t get enough of. He paddled while she told him stories of Montreal, where she had come from. She teased him in French, and he cursed himself for not paying better attention in French class over the years. She tossed her head back and laughed when he stumbled through basic sentences. Tu est tres belle, he gushed then joined her in laughter when he realized how bad his accent was. The conversation was easy, full of familiarity, connections were made with every other sentence. They both liked the color yellow and eggs over easy. They both hated the math teacher, Mr. Kapern, who slurped McDonald’s soda during class, which they both agreed was spiked. Jack tried to stay in the moment and focus on slowing things down, and not think of all the things he wanted to tell her. In return, she was a good storyteller, and didn’t mind his questions. She asked her own too, and he had to work hard to hold his tongue from telling her more. He had read enough to know there were some things he had to keep close to his heart. He assumed she didn’t have a boyfriend, the way she spoke of the move, what she wanted to do (fashion designer, NYC, she made these jeans from old ones). It was all blissfully good, the best meeting of a stranger he had ever had.
What seemed like hours had gone by in a flash, and reluctantly, he turned the paddleboard around and headed back. The night was clear, the temperature had dipped a little, but still warm, and the cicadas were in full melodic swing. It could have been a lazy July night, with long hours of nothing ahead. But it wasn’t, and Jack had an early commitment on Saturday. When they emerged from the water, giggling and a bit tipsy, he had grabbed her around the waist and kissed her. Her lips had been just as soft as he had imagined. The funny thing was she kissed him back, her tongue dancing with his, her heart thumping like his. They fell to their knees, intertwined as new lovers were meant to be, and they lay in the sand making out. That was the first of many moments that hung in the air like candy canes on Christmas morning—sweet, irresistible, and satisfying. Candy canes were brittle though, and as he experienced, easily crumbled into a thousand little sticky pieces of broken sugar if not carefully held.
He couldn’t go on like this. Wiping the moisture from his eyes, he tucked the journal back into his backpack and headed along the road to town, a few blocks away.
“Hey Jack,” Matt said in front of The Sugar Zone. He was with a few of the other football players.
“Hey,” Jack replied. Act normal, he thought. It was harder than he expected. He took several gulps of air, made sure he avoided eye contact. He hadn’t told anyone about the breakup. He didn’t want to explain. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him.
“We’re headed to the park for a pickup game. Coming?”
“Nah, I got stuff to do.”
“Okay dude, see ya later.”
As the guys walked away, Matt stayed back. “Yo, you and Rae wanna meet Sara and me tonight at the movies?”
In a way, Jack was relieved. Rumors hadn’t hit. Sara and Rae weren’t great friends, but they were close enough to know each other’s shit. If Rae hadn’t told her she dumped him, then maybe he had time to figure things out. But then the scary thought hit him that he didn’t know what Rae was doing that night. Was she with that guy? He wanted to shut off his brain, but the imagery of her and him kept pounding at him.
He cleared his throat. “Probably not, I got stuff…”
Matt paused, tilted his head, narrowed his eyes. Did he know?
Jack managed a smile, brushed it off. “Yeah, for sure. Just some college stuff, deadlines … you know.” Jack was headed to NYU after all and there were forms and documents to complete, all of which he had finished, but it was good cover for now.
“I’ll text you later.”
He entered the post office, grabbed a bubble wrap envelope and went to the counter. He held the journal in his hand for another long moment, caressing the fine leather cover. He contemplated writing a note on the outside to explain. I wanted you to know that I really meant everything I said, everything written in this journal and that I believe our souls are connected. I love you and I don’t understand why. Oh forget it, he thought, crumbling the blank piece of paper and tossing it in the trash. He stuffed the journal into the envelope, sealed it, and wrote her address on the outside as quickly as he could so that he couldn’t change his mind. Just the act of writing Rae Paulson on the envelope made his stomach flip. This was the right thing to do, he reasoned. She had to know how he felt. His entire being longed for her to know everything that was lodged in the deepest crevices of his soul. And if she rejected his words, then, and only then he would know he had no hope left. This journal was his lifeline. Would she take it or would she toss it? She wouldn’t toss it, would she? Could she? Jack felt a thick hand on his shoulder. He turned.
“Jack Penbroke,” the man said, a smile forming under his thick white beard. His eyes were kind, welcoming.
“Pastor Joe,” Jack replied, trying his best to lean on the envelope so the address was hidden. Pastor Joe had known him since he was a kid, had known his older brother, his younger sister, his mother, his father, and just about everyone else in town.
“Didn’t see you at church last Sunday.”
“I had a big test,” he said, looking at his sneakers. Lying wasn’t in his nature, and even harder to do with a priest.
Pastor Joe nodded. There was an awkward pause. Jack hoped he would move on, and in his head he strategized how to avoid being in line in front of him.
“I have breakfast every Saturday at Buddys.”
Jack stopped breathing.
“They have the best corn muffins.”
Jack swallowed hard.
Pastor Joe leaned in, “Sometimes you have let people go, Jack. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don’t. But either way, you have to learn not to hold on too tightly. Have faith Jack, you’re a strong, good young man with a bright future. You’ll get through this. Just make sure you are sending that for her, and not just for you.”
Pastor Joe didn’t wait for an answer. He moved away, allowing Jack room to breathe again. Jack bit at his cheek. Pastor Joe was right, but he was also wrong. He was sending the journal for her. For her to know that she had been truly loved. He couldn’t take any ownership of the poetry in the book, they had all come from her, well, had come from his feelings for her. Without her, there would have been no emotion, there would have been no words. So really, they were as much hers as they were his.
He mailed the package.
Jack felt loads lighter without the journal and walked through the door with a newfound feeling of confidence. She would read the journal and call him, would tell him she was sorry and would return to his arms, arms that would embrace her at any hour of the day or night. He turned the corner to go to the park, almost skipping from the feeling of hope, when he bumped into someone. He lifted his head. His eyes went wide. That someone was Rae.
“I need to talk to you,” she blurted. Her eyes were red, like she had been crying. Had she been crying?
She put her hand on his elbow and led him to a nearby bench. He slumped down, unable to draw his shoulders up, unable to process her being there next to him. He had successfully avoided her all week at school. How could the universe play with his heart like this? All that confidence he had felt moments ago disintegrated into the sidewalk. He felt a huge lump in his throat. He crossed his hands and squeezed them tight, watching, waiting for them to turn blue.
“Jack, I just feel awful. I have been trying to find a way to explain. That guy you saw me with last week, he was my boyfriend from Montreal, he just got back from a gap year in Asia. We were broken up, and then I met you. I didn’t want to tell you about him. I should have. I just … I don’t know, but we—Michael and I—we’ve been through so much. I mean his mom had died, and—”
“Stop,” Jack interrupted. He put his hands over his ears. He couldn’t listen to this. He didn’t want to know. Michael. A generic name but now one he loathed. “How could you?” He managed to get out, his voice tangled notes of fury. “I loved you. I love you. We had plans. What about our plans? What about them?” The thought of their plans, of New York City, broke the dam inside and tears escaped, dripping down his cheeks in zig zagged lines. She put her arms around him and he burrowed in her neck.
“I should have told you,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I care about you so much. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Her words pounded his heart like falling trees. Sorry? I care about you so much? That’s it. Eight months of his life, countless hours of romantic moments, of declared love, had been reduced to something so banal. Who was this person that he had given his heart to? How could he have let her play with his heart like this? He fell apart, he crumbled to the floor, he watched her as she exited the door of his life. His heart shattered, he couldn’t think, he slipped over the brink. Disbelief, darkness shrouded his thoughts. His voice quivered, loaded with fraught as he let out words that he fought to withhold.
“Please, please don’t go, Rae. Don’t leave me. Without you, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Jack, oh Jack,” she said, and held him tighter.
The world spinned out of control until a repeated cellphone ringing broke the moment. He immediately thought of Michael and broke from her grasp.
He stared at her hard, saw the conflict in her eyes between giving him attention and moving on to the phone. There was a time he was everything. Now he knew, this had changed. A wall started to build, brick by brick, upon his heart. Then he remembered the journal. His head took over, shouting instructions to his body.
“I have to go,” he said, standing up. “I just have to go.” He moved quickly, almost at a run, back to the post office. There was no line.
“I just mailed a package, I need to get it back,” he said to the guy at the counter. “It’s urgent.” The guy, Ralph per his nametag, barely looked up. “Truck just left.” Before this registered, another woman—the one who helped him earlier—strolled behind him.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” Jack exclaimed, getting her attention. “I just mailed a package. It was local. I need to get it back. It’s really important that I get it back.”
She smiled. “I remember you.”
“Maybe you can stop the truck.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do that.”
“But you have to,” he said. His voice was getting louder, more frantic. He saw the man and the woman exchange worried glances. He didn’t care. His brain was on fire, his heart gutted. He couldn’t let her get the journal. He couldn’t let her do any more damage.
He had been such a fool to think his words would make a difference.
Seeing that neither of them were going to help, he bolted to the door, narrowly missing a young mom coming through holding an infant. He had no time to think about not being reckless. He saw the truck pulling out of the parking lot. He ran to it, just as it turned into traffic. He chased after it, shouting, all the way to the corner. Then he gave up. With his hands on his knees, he heaved and threw up the remnants of his breakfast into a nearby bush. People walked by him, some stared. He held onto the metal pole of the street sign with one hand trying to catch his breath and think about what he had done. Finally he started walking back the way he came in a daze, contemplating ways of intercepting the package before it reached her. He did not notice the female postal worker walking briskly towards him.
“Oh my, you’re a fast runner. Are you on the track team? I realized when you left that I hadn’t sorted through the packages yet,” she said. “It must be pretty important for you to carry on like this. Here you go.” She handed him the package.
“Oh my God. Thank you, thank you,” he said. It took several breaths for him to believe that he had the package. He repeated, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now go join the track team.”
He nodded, and she left him. He leaned against the brick building and closed his eyes, holding the envelope against his chest. The weather had shifted, the wind picked up, the storm was about to break, but he stood there with no sense of urgency to seek cover. He swallowed the lump in his throat and willed the darkness of his shut eyes to make the world disappear for a while. Honking horns, blaring sirens of an ambulance in the distance, pedestrians chatting walking by, were all sounds of life that buzzed around him. People were going about their day, carrying on like the machines that they were. He would be like them, he would no longer be folly to love. Yes, that was it. He would rejoin the world stronger once the bricks were laid around his heart. But to do so, he had one thing to complete. With steady hands he put the package into his backpack, zipped it up, pulled his baseball cap down low, and headed back to the river.
Standing on the pier, he looked out at Matt’s house in the distance. He remembered a detail then. That first night on the paddleboard, Rae said that she was afraid of piers, that she was terrified that they would collapse while she was standing on them. She didn’t trust that wood was sturdy enough or that the pilings went deep enough into the river bed. It was a strange fear, considering her swimming abilities and her love of water. But he was learning that people were full of inconsistencies, ones that even they couldn’t reconcile.
“Well, I’m not afraid of piers, Rae, and I’m not afraid to let you go, either. I mean it this time.” He pulled out the envelope, ripped out the journal, and in one mighty sweep threw it into the river.
“Goodbye Rae,” he said just as the rain began. Let the heavens cry, he thought, I will weep no longer for what I know has reached an end.