In Detroit, the rain used to fall like fire. When I was sixteen, I remember sitting on the front step to our apartment. I remember the cold, the wet, the grit. I remember staring out at the gray and chalk of the sidewalk, washing hopscotch diagrams into the gutter. The streetlights had just come on, and the road was for once, for just one magical second, void of cars, sound and motion. It was the first and only time I could ever remember it being so quiet. I sat on the front step, watching the sky overhead crack open. The soft plink of rain is a reddish-black audio memory. There is no picture of the rain that night, just the unearthly quiet, the soft hum of the streetlights, and the sounds and smell of rain and concrete. I remember how the steam rose off the pavement, and I remember tearing up her picture into tiny bits, bits so small I could never tape them back together again. I remember never wanting to see her face again. I wish I had kept the picture, now. Then, I remember the satisfaction of walking off the step to the gutter, to sprinkle the pieces of her face into the gutter, sending her into the sewers with the memory of hopscotch, children’s games.
My brother Ian, who is as wordless and gray as the steps, comes out of the front door and sits next to me. I don’t remember hearing his footfalls. I don’t remember what it felt like when he slung his arm over my shoulders. I can’t remember the treble of his voice or the words that he said. I don’t remember crying but I know that he comforted me. Kate- why? I never said goodbye, and you didn’t, either. I’ve not spoken a word to you since that night, a lifetime or ten ago. We stopped existing to each other, like the rain stops existing to the cloud once it starts to fall. Ian told me to come inside.
“Mom’s worried. She said you haven’t come inside since you came home from Kate’s house.”
“What happened? Do you want to talk about it? ”
“‘I, like, love you and all, but, y’know, I’m not in love with you, right?’”
I mock you and it doesn’t make me feel better. I accentuate all the aggravating things about your speech patterns, your unnecessary use of words that transition to nowhere, your way of making everything sound like a question, your damnable use of break-up cliché words. You’re not as bad as I make you sound, I know it, so does Ian. There was a time when I thought you sounded cute. But right now it seems fitting to mimic you, to make you sound nasal and whiny. It’s a complimentary lie, not quite truthful, but the colors do match.
It’s the typical teen-angst, I-loved-you-so-much-and-you-destroyed-me story. Almost. You weren’t the first to hurt me. You certainly weren’t the last. You weren’t even the most important, Kate. You’re an anecdote. You’re a story to tell. At sixteen, I got a lot of odd, conflicting advice from everybody I never wanted to get or take advice from: The Lit Mag girls told me to stay friends with you. The Lit Mag guys told me to hate you and write shit on the bathroom walls about you. My teachers said, Stop moping, it’s just puppy love, you’ll understand when you’re older. The cheerleaders said to try and get back together with you, ask for another chance, do something nice. The football players told me to fuck you or someone who looked like you, get you out of my system once and for all. The debaters said to torment you, to ignore you, to be really cold and vicious. Nobody saw that it wasn’t you I was concerned with.
I learned to hate clichés in my English classes. My favorite teacher (who later told me, “Stop moping!”), said, “Clichés are a stale way of looking at the world. There is absolutely nothing to talk about that hasn’t been talked about before. Your job as a writer is to find a new way to talk about it.” Like Kate, Mrs. Jordan is barely more than an anecdote. She’s a story to tell, too, but not here. I disagreed with her then, and now. It’s not so much clichés themselves that should be avoided. I was scared of clichés because I was scared of becoming a cliché. All I ever saw when I looked into Kate’s eyes was myself. No windows to her soul, no magic, no meaning, I couldn’t even figure out most of the time if she was thinking about me or if she was thinking about My So-Called Life. But that was okay. As long as I just saw an inverted, black-and-white picture of me in her eyes, I wasn’t cliché, and neither was what we were doing when I looked there.
My world began and ended in my schoolbag. I loved my English classes, Lit Mag, and Kate. That scared me. I felt full when I was afraid. Kate-you made me a raisin. She made me a cliché, unwittingly and reluctantly. My teachers loved me in spite of (or maybe because of), my overly dressed up clichés. That scared me, too, because I knew what I was writing wasn’t unique, that anyone with a grain of talent and a Thesaurus, and time on their hands, and an obsessive adolescent love affair, could write what I was writing. Maybe Mrs. Jordan knew that clichés, like teenage love, have to whither sometime. But both hold that tiny grain. Maybe that’s why she hated clichés so much; it’s that tiny grain in the cliché, the truth of it all. When you blow away the chaff, all that’s left over is that small grain.
Then, I hated love poetry. Unless, of course it was vague and addressed no one in particular. I hated it because love is cliché. Love is laughable. Love is dumb. But I, like everyone else, got a twinge of disappointment if movies and stories didn’t end neatly. Now I can appreciate the beauty of a ragged ending, or things that end as they should, rather than as I’d like them to end. I hated love poetry, but I wrote it, compulsively, about Kate. It was vague. It didn’t address her in a way that anyone other than me, and maybe sometimes she, could recognize. It was every cliché and it was no cliché. How cliché.
“Kate (never with a comma always with a dash)-
we kiss, I taste our texture
our taste buds, a novel confection, still.
the date on a calendar: us.
you, like filament, breathing.
my hands search you for old secrets—
lost in a rigid schedule, these hours.
slips, these secrets, a leather grip of light through slats
a day calendar, I trace you, sweet confection,
salty on my tongue, this texture.
Of course, not my best poetry. What poetry written with a specific audience is? You had a name. You had a face. We had a history. You knew what I was hinting around when other readers didn’t. Kate (never with a comma, always with a dash)- I knew you let your friends read my poems and notes to you. I knew that they laughed at me and were secretly jealous of you. I knew their boyfriends didn’t write them poems or long wordy letters. I wrote for their benefit as well as yours. I knew you kept my letters and poems in your sock drawer, tied up neatly with a pink ribbon. All of it, so cliché. Did you keep all those notes, those poems because of me? Or was it to show your girlfriends? Or for your unborn grandkids to find and wonder, Who’s this Alex guy? Grandpa’s name is Travis! Why the ribbon, if not to show off to someone else?
I remember knowing why you called when you called. I remember the fear. I remember how it felt, knowing a bad secret before someone tells you a bad secret that you already know. I remember how blank I felt, walking three blocks to your house after school, before dinner, on a school night. I felt like a raisin, surprised, but not surprised, not wanting to actually hear and make a memory to something I figured out just by the fact that you called me on a school night and said something that was so cliché. My face felt hot. My stomach felt like wet chewing gum. I can conjure it back up into being, even now.
Now, I don’t remember your eyes. I think they were blue but they might have been green. They weren’t brown. I don’t remember if you cried or not, I just remember you opened the door but didn’t make me feel like I could, or should, sit down.
“So…what do we need to talk about?”
“I figured. What about us?”
“I don’t think we should be together anymore? I love, you, but I’m not, like, in love with you? I mean, we’re sixteen? I still want to be your friend?”
It’s somewhere around there that a I tuned you out. It’s not exactly what I said to Ian later, but it was close enough to what you actually said, the aggravating upswing on every last word, turning a statement into a question, garbage words and clichés littered throughout what could have been summed up as this: There is no Us. There never was. I think you were fidgety, Kate- picking at hangnails you didn’t have, and I know that your stomach must have felt as sour as mine did. I know, having made that same speech, in varied incarnations, to many not-Kate’s over the ensuing years. I remember you looked at me and your eyes told me what your mouth wouldn’t: You don’t love me and I don’t love you. All your poetry is bullshit. You like my body, not my brain. You think I don’t know that? You’re not writing poems for me, they’re for anyone who’ll read them, and I don’t want to anymore. I tried to touch your hand and you pulled it away, said, Don’t, and I wanted you to tell me everything your eyes just said. I finally saw something in them that wasn’t myself, and you don’t want to say those things, I don’t really want to hear them, but finally there’s a bit of truth between us and I want it. You walked me back to the door and I remember the way your face contorted, maybe sadness, maybe anger, maybe both, I didn’t know then and don’t know now. I looked at you one last time. I saw nothing but eyes in your eyes. They were blue, I remember now, how could I have forgotten? All I saw were pupils.
“Kate, would you please throw away my poems?”
You closed the door. This is why you’re a story, Kate. You never answered me. I stopped existing to you like the rain doesn’t exist to clouds anymore. You never answered me. I still don’t know if you have all my young clichés wrapped up in a ribbon somewhere. How cliché.
I walked home that night wrapped up in the injustice of it all, how I didn’t love her, not really, until she was leaving me, and of all poems I would write about her. In fact, all the poems I wrote after that night were significantly better: less big words, more images, more real. Before, I wrote about what I thought I believed. I wrote about what I thought I felt, or what I thought I should feel. After, I wrote about what I knew. I knew what it felt like to love someone who is leaving you. I knew what it felt like to pretend like you were not in love only to fall in love anyway. I knew what it felt like to be dismissed. I knew what it felt like to have your dumb words hiding out in someone else’s sock drawer and to be absolutely powerless to do anything about it. My poetry was, for a long while, still about Kate. Maybe, in a way, it is still about Kate. Except now it really is about her. Not what she wants to hear, but how I really feel.
That night, as the rain fell, like fire, into the quiet street and rose up again as steam, I thought about how it hurt to never have a question answered. I knew then, that night, that you had made your mark but shutting your mouth. Your school picture, junior year, beginning to look like the woman you’ll be- I tore it into bits too tiny to tape back up. Into bits as tiny as my heart felt that night. I sent you down the gutter and sometimes wish, just for a moment, that I had that one picture back. I wish I had more of you, than just this story to tell. There are no clichés, Kate. Just over-told stories.