The phone rang while a few of us were hanging out. I don’t recall who specifically was present; it wasn’t an organized gathering, just one of those times in college when two or three of your friends drop by your dorm room and you all wind up watching TV or listening to music. On the other end of the line was my sister, then a senior in high school. She was still connected to many of the people and places of my past while I, a college sophomore, had begun the process of trying to separate myself from the emotions and memories that bonded me to my hometown. It would be nice if you could let go off all of your pain and sorrow in one single moment, like a Band-Aid getting ripped from your skin. A stinging sensation that burns your skin, but you know it will subside.
“Gwen got married.” *
To understand the significance of that statement, you’d have to go back two years to when I first learned Gwen’s name after watching her from afar throughout my junior year of high school; you’d have to go back to a summer full of longing (“a girl like that would never go out with me”) and then the euphoria when she did say “yes;” you’d have to go back and follow the sad trajectory of the pieces of my heart as it broke when her family moved away, dashing any dream I had of us staying together.
It had taken me a very long time to get over the spell she cast on me.Â By the winter of 1990, nearly two full years after she left, I was finally moving on.
“Married?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
This stunning news had traveled across state lines and reached my sister. Already rumors were flying as to the reason of this sudden wedding. Gwen was 19 and had just started college. I decided not to justify any rumor, perhaps out of respect for the girl I once loved, for that’s what she was when we last saw each other, sitting on a street curb, trying to find the right words to say. But now she was married. A wife. An adult. My sister expected a bigger reaction than the one I gave, but what could I say? Gwen was a part of my past, and in order to keep moving onward, I couldn’t let this news affect me.
Grabbing a pen and paper, my Walkman and whatever tape was in it, I left the room for the study lounge. In a corner, alone, I sat for awhile listening to the tape in the player, Daniel Lanois’ Acadie. His atmospheric, wintry music perfectly reflected the cruel weather outside the dorm. I kept asking myself, “Why?” as if something tragic had happened to Gwen. I wanted to know, but it wasn’t my place to ask, and that drove me crazy.
But the harsh truth was, as much as I thought I was over this girl, I was fooling myself. They say you never forget your first, and in the deep recesses of my brain, I must have had some glimmer of hope that maybe the two of us would find our ways back to each other. I was an eternal optimist, ever the fool.
Through my headphones came an intimate acoustic song called “Silium’s Hill.” In a hushed voice, Lanois’ voice was something from a dream. He sang:
On a frozen lamp pole, I scratch her name
With my rusty old pen knife on an empty heart
Standing by the window, is that you out there
At the southern cross over Silium’s Hill
Over and over I listened to that passage, drawing from it the image of a man saying goodbye to the one he loved. The old heart and the initials remained engraved in the lamp pole as a testament of the love he and his girl once had. That love, like the girl, was now just a phantom. Carving those initials was his way of saying goodbye, and that’s what I needed to do. Inspiration struck and I began to write. Not a poem or a letter, no journal entry, just a short story that I frantically scribbled out while the simple finger picking of “Silium’s Hill” guided me. In the story, two college friends travel south to see an ex-girlfriend before she gets married. They arrive just before the ceremony and the ex-boyfriend finds the bride as she’s preparing to enter the sanctuary. There is no dramatic confrontation, just two kids who once knew so much about each other, answering questions before they part ways for the last time. I imagined what I would have said to Gwen and what I hoped she would answer.
“Are you happy?”
“Yes, I am.”
When I completed my exercise in catharsis, I stared out the window at the dark sky where snow flurries drifted to the earth. Whatever feelings that may have been sneaking around in my psyche died off. What I felt for Gwen faded away like the end of an album until I was left only with the sound of my heart beating, a record needle stuck in the grooves waiting for the next record to drop.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.–SM