The Light We Lost (Page 2)

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You looked at me, and our eyes, still wet with tears, locked with the kind of magnetism that ignores the world around it. Your hand slid to my waist, and I rose up onto my toes to meet your lips halfway. We pressed our bodies together, as if that would protect us from whatever came after. As if the only way to stay safe was to keep my lips on yours. The moment your body enveloped mine, that’s how I felt—safe, enfolded in the strength and warmth of your arms. Your muscles fluttered against my hands and I buried my fingers in your hair. You wrapped my braid around your palm, tugging it and tipping my head back. And I forgot the world. In that moment, there was only you.

For years I felt guilty about it. Guilty that we kissed for the first time while the city burned, guilty that I was able to lose myself in you in that moment. But later I learned that we weren’t alone. People told me in whispers that they’d had sex that day. That they’d conceived a child. They’d gotten engaged. Said I love you for the first time. There’s something about death that makes people want to live. We wanted to live that day, and I don’t blame us for it. Not anymore.

When we broke for breath, I leaned my head against your chest. I listened to your heart and was comforted by its steady beating.

Did my heartbeat comfort you? Does it still?

iv

We went back to your dorm room because you promised me lunch. You wanted to go onto the roof with your camera after we ate, you told me, and take some pictures.

“For the Spectator?” I asked.

“The paper?” you said. “Nah. For me.”

In the kitchen I got distracted by a stack of your photos—black-and-white prints taken all over campus. They were beautiful, bizarre, bathed in light. Images zoomed so far in that an everyday object looked like modern art.

“Where’s this one?” I asked. After looking for a while, I realized it was a close-up of a bird’s nest, lined with what looked like newspapers and magazines and someone’s essay for a French literature class.

“Oh, that was incredible,” you told me. “Jessica Cho—Do you know her? She sings a cappella? David Blum’s girlfriend?—she told me about this nest that she could see out her window that someone’s homework got worked into. So I went to check it out. I had to hang out the window to get this shot. Jess made Dave hold my ankles because she was afraid I would fall. But I got it.”

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After that story I saw you differently. You were daring, brave, committed to capturing art. Looking back, I’m guessing that’s what you wanted me to think. You were trying to impress me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I just thought: Wow. I thought: He’s wonderful. But what was true then, and has been true as long as I’ve known you, is that you find beauty everywhere. You notice things other people don’t. It’s something I’ve always admired about you.

“Is this what you want to do?” I asked then, indicating the pictures.

You shook your head. “It’s just for fun,” you said. “My mom’s an artist. You should see what she can do, these gorgeous enormous abstracts, but she makes a living by painting small canvases of Arizona sunsets for tourists. I don’t want that kind of life, creating what sells.”

I leaned against the counter and looked at the rest of the photographs. Rust leaching into a stone bench, cracked veins of marble, corrosion on a metal railing. Beauty where I’d never imagined it could be. “Is your dad an artist, too?” I asked.

Your face closed. I could see it, like a door shutting behind your eyes. “No,” you said. “He’s not.”

I had stumbled into a fault line I didn’t know was there. I filed that away—I was discovering the landscape of you. Already I was hoping it was terrain I’d learn well, one that would become second nature to navigate.

You were quiet. I was quiet. The TV was still blaring in the background, and I heard the newscasters talking about the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The horror of the situation rushed over me again. I put your photographs down. It seemed perverse to focus on beauty then. But looking back, maybe that was exactly the right thing to do.

“Didn’t you say we were going to eat lunch?” I asked, even though I wasn’t hungry, even though the images flashing across the television screen made my stomach churn.

The door opened behind your eyes. “That I did,” you said, with a nod.

All you had the ingredients for were nachos. So, mechanically, I sliced tomatoes and opened a can of beans with a rusty can opener while you arranged tortilla chips in one of those throwaway foil trays and grated cheese into a chipped cereal bowl.

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“What about you?” you asked, as if our conversation hadn’t gotten derailed.

“Hm?” I pressed the top of the can into the beans so I could lever it off.

“Are you an artist?”

I put the metal disc down on the counter. “Nope,” I said. “The most creative thing I do is write stories for my roommates.”

“About what?” you asked, your head cocked to one side.

I looked down so you wouldn’t see me blush. “This is embarrassing,” I said, “but they’re about a teacup pig named Hamilton who accidentally got accepted into a college meant for rabbits.”

You let out a surprised laugh. “Hamilton. A pig,” you said. “I get it. That’s funny.”

“Thanks,” I said, looking up at you again.

“So is that what you want to do after graduation?” You had reached for the jar of salsa and were tapping its lid against the counter top to loosen it.

I shook my head. “I don’t think there’s a big market out there for Hamilton the Pig stories. I’ve been thinking about going into advertising, but saying it now, it sounds silly.”

“Why silly?” you asked, twisting the lid off with a pop.

I looked over at the TV. “Does it mean anything? Advertising? If this were my last day on Earth and I’d spent my whole adult life coming up with campaigns to sell people . . . shredded cheese . . . or nacho chips . . . would I feel like my time here was well spent?”

You bit your lip. Your eyes said, I’m thinking about this. I learned more of your topography. Perhaps you learned a bit of mine. “What makes a life well spent?” you asked.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” I told you, my mind turning as I was talking. “I think it might have something to do with making a mark—in a positive way. Leaving the world a little bit better than it was when you found it.” I still believe that, Gabe. It’s what I’ve been striving my whole life to do—I think you have too.

I saw something blossom in your face then. I wasn’t sure what it meant. I hadn’t learned you well enough yet. But now I know that look. It means perspectives are shifting in your mind.

You dipped a chip in the salsa and held it out to me.

“Bite?” you asked.

I crunched it in half, and you popped the rest into your mouth. Your eyes traced the planes of my face and traveled down the length of my body. I could feel you examining me from different angles and vantage points. Then you brushed my cheek with your fingertips and we kissed again; this time you tasted like salt and chili pepper.

When I was five or six, I drew on my bedroom wall with a red crayon. I don’t think I ever told you this story. Anyway, as I was drawing hearts and trees and suns and moons and clouds, I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. But I couldn’t stop myself—I wanted to do it so badly. My room had been decorated in pink and yellow, but my favorite color was red. And I wanted my room to be red. I needed my room to be red. Drawing on the wall felt completely right and absolutely wrong at the same time.

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That’s how I felt the day I met you. Kissing you in the middle of tragedy and death felt completely right and absolutely wrong at the same time. But I concentrated on the part that felt right, the way I always do.

• • •

I SLID MY HAND into the back pocket of your jeans, and you slid your hand into mine. We pulled each other closer. The phone in your room rang, but you ignored it. Then the phone in Scott’s room rang.

A few seconds later, Scott came into the kitchen and cleared his throat. We broke apart and faced him. “Stephanie’s looking for you, Gabe,” he said. “I put her on hold.”

“Stephanie?” I asked.

“No one,” you answered, just as Scott said, “His ex.”

“She’s crying, dude,” Scott told you.

You looked torn, your eyes going from Scott to me and back again. “Would you tell her I’ll call her back in a few minutes?” you said to him.

Scott nodded and left, and then you grabbed my hand, weaving your fingers through mine. Our eyes met, like they had on the roof, and I couldn’t look away. My heart sped up. “Lucy,” you said, somehow infusing my name with desire. “I know you’re here, and I know that makes this strange, but I should see if she’s okay. We were together all last school year and only broke up last month. This day—”

“I get it,” I said. And weirdly, it made me like you better, that while you weren’t dating Stephanie anymore, you still cared about her. “I should head back to my roommates anyway,” I said, even though I didn’t want to go. “Thank you for . . .” I started the sentence without knowing how to end it, and then found I couldn’t.

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