We had only one more residency at Whidbey Island, in Washington State, until we graduated from our mostly long-distance writing program, so the four of us boys had decided to commemorate the occasion with a photo shoot. We’d chosen the perfect outfits—a combination of hipster, English prof, and frat boy—and we intended the pictures, taken by our friend Lindsey, to capture our genius forever. We four perched on the porch rail of a Victorian home, the sea in the background, taking it as a good omen when Jack, the local bald eagle we’d named in honor of John Donne, swooped down to observe.
Then we moved to the pebbled beach, sitting together on a length of driftwood and trying to look like we owned the place. Our photographer was of a different opinion. Balanced halfway up the sandy bluff, and nearing her hundredth shot, Lindsey lowered her camera and cocked an eyebrow. “Okay, now y’all just look like Wilson Philips!”
“Yes,” said Derek. “Yes!”
Ross laughed. Kolby and I grinned at each other. The shoot was going even better than we’d hoped.
A year and a half earlier we’d been thrown together in the same group of first-year writers. A day and a half was all it took to make us hope to never not see each other. And now we were looking down the barrel of graduation, wondering if or when we four would be together again—different states, different jobs, different lives—once we graduated in Santa Fe the following summer.
We could look at these pictures in the intervening months, perhaps printing a favorite to tack on the wall near a writing desk or to set as the background image on a laptop screen. Then what? Back to the lives we lived before we met, but changed. We were tied together by our words, electronic and breathed, but we were always connecting, departing, reconnecting. The program—our relationship—was life in motion. Like the wind blowing Lindsey’s hair as she returned the camera to her eye. Like the beach grass in the sand. Like the shorebirds and the whitecaps and the clouds.
The next day we walked onto the nearby ferry, crossed the Straight of Juan de Fuca to Port Angeles, strolled along the waterfront, and climbed the two flights of carpeted, creaking stairs to Sirens, a Pub of Distinction. A penthouse home in earlier years, Sirens had high ceilings, hardwood floors, and unruly plants spilling out of interior window boxes.
We set up camp for the day. Food orders placed and pitchers secured, I watched Kolby fold his long legs into an armchair by the pot-bellied stove. He opened his notebook and started to write. Ross, sitting next to me at the table, poured himself a pint. “Hey Kolby,” he said, “are you going to polish off a few poems before your burger gets here?”
Kolby replied without looking up. “A few? I’ll knock out another whole chapbook.”
Derek, lounging across from Ross and me, laughed and pulled on his headphones.
I looked through the wall of windows at pacific water stippled by March sunlight. I watched bubbles unlacing inside my glass. I watched my friends writing—three men I hadn’t known until the year before—and I understood I was scared to lose them. I had a box of yearbooks in my garage at home and another box full of handwritten letters from people I no longer loved. I knew how easily coworkers could become strangers when one changed jobs. I’d cried my way through Band of Brothers. The occasion of our association was school, I thought, so what would happen to us after graduation?
We would continue to talk and write and share poems and stories, of course, as we already did—but always before, at the end of that tunnel of words, there had been the light of reunion and reattachment. A friend back home had told me that moving across the country away from one’s friends was no big deal. Between e-mail and texting and the occasional video chat, she wasn’t missing anything. I wanted to believe her, to believe that it was going to be fine and that nothing would change.
It was fine. Nothing changed. And then we had to graduate.
We spent our final residency in celebration. There were fewer classes to attend and more chances to show off our finished writing, and day after day we sat beside each other on a balcony or after a meal, watching the clouds bank up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Santa Fe, laughing and drinking and retelling, nearly dizzy from the altitude and emotion.
It was one of the happiest times of my life. And I knew exactly when it would end, though not exactly how.
On the tenth day we graduated. It was late afternoon, and when the ceremony concluded, the familiar thunderheads were building in the sky. There was dinner, there were conversations and congratulations, and then the closing dance.
During the last song—Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” as if that could be invented—words failed. Awash in a sea of bodies, bounding beside my friends, a tiny still-coherent part of me knew I’d arrived at the scene where you let yourself go. I threw back my head and howled at what was racing toward me.
Then my face was pressed into Kolby’s shirt, and I reached up and held his neck to keep from tipping. The feel of my face on his chest was a blanket laid across the planks of a deck. Stubble on ribcage, on collarbone, and I lost my balance as the night spun past.
The music died. We faced each other, arms’ length. He choked out the question.
“Is this going to get any easier if I stay?”
He turned to his left, a spin like so many that night, a spin I watched in slow motion. My hands rose to my chin. I watched him navigate the sweating, laughing sea of bodies, marking a steady course for the edge of the room. Then he was gone.
My hands began to shiver. I curled them into fists but they kept right on, and soon my body with them. I stumbled through the crowd to Derek, to Ross. And when I hugged Ross he wouldn’t unwrap his arms.
The certainty of friendship—like the certainty of words—can be broken, by distance or even the threat of it, as slowly and as surely as ice can split and separate pavement.
Back home after graduation, I wrote to my friends.
We still have our words, I said, and our words remain a gift. So we dig them up. We brush the dirt from their edges and whisper comfort to them. We set them in the windowsill and wait for them to catch the light.
Or we push our words into the stream of time, a bottle of champagne smashed across their bow. Good luck and Godspeed. We’ll see you on the other side.
And as they sail away they whisper to us. On the other side we’ll be waiting. Now you see a poor reflection, but then you’ll see face to face.
Separated from my friends by hours, by days, by states of life, I wanted words to be our bridge. I longed for them to connect points painfully distant, to span the intervening valley so that I would never need to walk the long way down.
Months later, at church during the gospel reading, my hands again began to shake.
With my boys in tow, I found our seats early. One son lay on the floor leading Lego figures into battle while the other sat drawing geometric figures in a sketchbook. I had time to flip through the program and to notice that the gospel was from the final chapter of John, when Jesus says farewell to his friend Peter.
As the service marched along to its familiar rhythm, I tried to put up some walls that felt necessary. We sang. We prayed. We tried to draw God’s peace from our hearts, hand over hand, and pass it to the people sitting near. And then we stood for the reading. My pastor ran his long, Lutheran finger down the page, finding the place. He spoke in that easy way of his that said some of the best things flat but deep, like an M. C. Escher print.
“Afterward, Jesus appeared again to his disciples . . .”
I was inside the story. A broken group of friends is trying to stitch their lives together after the death of Jesus has ripped it apart. Most return to their nets and boats, taking again the measure of a life they assumed they’d left forever.
As the sun rises over the lake, illuminating a boat with more men in it than fish, a figure on shore calls out. Urges them to give it one more try. This time fish fill the nets to bursting. One of the men shouts that the figure on shore is Jesus, and Peter, the golden retriever, knows what to do. Which isn’t to wait in the boat until the keel slices sand. It isn’t to wait until the water will rise only to his knees. His love provides a different answer, and he launches into the deep and pulls hard for shore. Because it is the fastest way to be with his friend.
Which is why Peter is first to the fire. Jesus has already coaxed flames down into a bed of settled coals, and now he’s turning fish on a sharpened stick until the flesh crackles.
I stood on that shore inside my church, and my fingers interlaced behind my neck. To keep my hands still. To keep my shoulders from giving me away.
Some words can only unfurl when one body is near enough to breathe on another. Jesus planned to speak words to Peter that would break his heart. And then to leave. So Jesus, before he spoke, cooked Peter breakfast and watched him eat while water dripped from Peter’s wet hair and rolled across his shoulders. While grease ran down Peter’s fingers and chin.
We meet once more after graduation. It is the next summer, at the Oregon coast. The four of us walk the margin of the water. Only Kolby is wearing shoes. Only Derek is wearing shorts. Wind pours off the ocean. Seagulls spin in the ripening sky before settling toward their own reflections.
When I look down I see the weight of my steps pressing water from the sand; looking behind, I see my steps refilling. I taste tannin on my tongue, hops and tobacco, salt, and I know that my three friends are feeling what I am.
Ross suggests we climb a dune. At its top, we sit and talk and drink—two of us tomato juice and beer, for God knows why. We speak, at first, the mindless yak that foams up when summer is wearing down, the kind of words that are afraid of their own end.
Later there is time for other words. For touch and tears. And for silence.
Out past the expanse of shore, the waves go on forever, one atop the other in infinite progression, as if the water has been stacked, layer on layer, to the end of everything.
We ask, remember that time? This, we say, is good. And so it goes. So we go.
I regret it even now. For it is those hours together on a beach in Oregon that teach me that time is terribly finite, and that the God who holds it chooses to suffer the idiocy of four beer-stunned boys, stumbling in the long confusion of their lives toward each other.
Where is the place beyond time? When is the judgment of distance overruled? We left the beach, and all that night breakers rolled toward the land, toward the edge that was there and always will be.
After our reunion, late one night as I’m driving alone, I look to my right and discover Jesus riding shotgun.
Toga hiked up, filthy sandals on the dash, black hair whipping in the warm wind. He nods to the music, air-surfs his hand outside the window. Looks over at me every few minutes, sometimes with a smile.
We keep driving without speaking. I’m tired, and it isn’t everyday I give Jesus a lift, so it takes a few more songs for it to hit me: he’s answering my questions about distance and friendship with silence. Speaking with his body. He’s answering me by sitting close enough to touch.
I remember the chapter that comes before Peter’s belly flop into the Sea of Galilee. I remember what Jesus says to another friend. Thomas draws a line in the sand and dares Jesus to cross it. Jesus does. Because you have seen me you have believed, says Jesus, taking Thomas’s hand in his. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.
We keep driving. And I reach over years, in and out of weeks and through a day. I extend my right arm across the emergency brake and touch Jesus’s leg. He grins. Head still nodding.
Because he knows I’m all in with Thomas. And he’s good with that. Because all those years ago he blessed Thomas with the only evidence that Thomas’s body could credit, just as he’s doing with me.
Time passes. River unfolds beside road, road unfolds before headlights, and above us spin stars, whisk the silhouettes of trees.
Now it’s only me. I must have dropped Jesus off somewhere. I can’t remember exactly where, but I’m sure it was someplace he had an appointment. He knows when to leave me for someone else. That’s what I love about him—that he looks past me and takes the time to bless fucking everybody.
We can believe without seeing. We can be satisfied with reading the words of a friend’s laugh instead of hearing the flow of it, baritone water down three quick falls. We can live apart and believe nothing has changed.
Or we can’t. I can’t. And through that night of absence I keep driving, high beams on, my eyes peeled for presence.
Back during one of our residencies there was a service of blessing for all the writers. Each was invited to step to the front and, at the hands of a priest, receive words of affirmation and sending, along with a mark of holy oil. When an oiled thumb pressed into the grit and sweat on my forehead, it shaped a door, and the words of blessing stepped through that door, one by one, and into me.
The service ended and I walked outside to the balcony. It was a summer night in Santa Fe, all dark heat and thunderweather. All of us were basking in the glow of it and of being told that it was all right, believe it or not, to be who we already were.
Then Allison made her way across the balcony. Our circle of ten or so bodies widened to give her a place.
“I missed the service—how was it?”
Someone described it. Allison was smiling, but she bounced on the balls of her feet like she couldn’t quite see over the edge of the story.
“So I missed it,” she said. “I was too late.”
One of us saw what was necessary. Beer bottle in left hand, Allison’s shoulder gripped with the right. In the emerging silence she looked up into the words, “Allison, you aren’t too late.”
Right thumb slid up the side of the sweating bottle. Wet thumb touched her forehead, at the place where her red hair curled up and out, and drew a line downward, like rain falling. Then left to right, like wind through oak. And hovering over the touch, present inside the touch, was the blessing she had missed.
Sometimes blessing is bodily. Sometimes the only task of words is to invite touch. There are words we need to feel through skin to believe.
I carry memories like smooth stones.
Now and then I step to the edge of the water and curl one in the crook of my forefinger. I lean back, weight on my right foot, left pointing true. I cock my arm and throw. Smaller and smaller skips the stone, according to the mathematics of the spirit, until it disappears into the waves, the sky. It is my way of living the memory again, of discovering what it would be like to live without it.
For a time I straighten and recurl my finger, feeling the ghost. And then, when the memory returns to my hand, I hide it away, feeling its familiar weight when I turn and walk.
This is life. These are my friends. And yet my body tells me that we are not made to be kept in a pocket.
Until an end is made of separation, know this: if I hear your voice across the water, no matter how far my boat, I will leap toward you. I will pull hard across the distance. I can already smell the breakfast you are cooking, and I can’t wait to receive it from your open hand. To taste it, and to know that it is good.