As a college student, I had a strange run on making annual journeys to small towns to celebrate the Fourth of July. Being a city girl myself, attending school at an urban university, this was sort of unexpected. I’d come to discover that the 4th was done best, though, by little towns. On the prairie. Or at least Up North.
My favorite of these trips had hardly anything to do with the traditional Fourth of July schtick at all…though we did see fireworks out at the lake, and we did listen to the emergency scanner in the living room to see if anyone was presently blowing off their digits. I’m sure the pyrotechnics were just fine, but that’s not what I remember about the trip. Instead, anytime I think about it I am a hundred feet over a running stream, my back pressed to the bridge board beneath me, my gaze trained on billions of stars up above on a moonless night. My mind was almost unable to process all that my senses experienced: the sound of the water, the cold air in competition with the warm hand of a friend, the smell of growing things, the improbable expanse of the universe before my eyes. I’d never seen the Milky Way with my own eyes before. While lying prone on a bridge above a river, grounded though I was, I saw the wideness of things.
We started the evening by watching fireworks at the lake. The family EMTs were on high-alert, and I wasn’t so into the display, anyway. It was brief, if I remember. I likely spent the majority of the evening wondering if my friend had told his family we’d broken-up a week or so earlier. My guess was no. I was grateful for the additional presence of my girl Myra, who I surmised took the “girlfriend” pressure off of me anyway. I was not going to be the one to explain what had happened to cause the dissolution of the romance. Not that I blamed my friend for his reluctance…I understood, certainly, the ripple-effect it would potentially create. So I just acted…neutral. And was happy when we were extended an invitation by some of his high school friends to come to a party when the fireworks were over, and parted ways with his family.
I could not have known that the party would be hosted in the middle of a field. Things like this did not happen in the suburbs, in the city. Off in the distance stood a house, one we would stumble through the dark to reach later when nature called. But for now, there were cars in a circle with their headlights trained on a central spot in a field, and in their unforgiving beams stood roughly thirty ambivalent 20-year-olds. Some must have been a bit older, as there was plenty of booze to be found. One of the cars played its stereo, tuned in to a top-40 station that played a smattering of country songs as well. Mostly, though, it played the depressing alt-rock that dominated the airwaves in 1997. I distinctly remember looking over at one of my friend’s high school chums, sobbing riotously as The Verve Pipe played in the background.
Myra and I sort of wandered, not knowing anyone else at the party, and finally alit in a small council surrounding a fire pit. We watched the flames dance, and after awhile the others there started asking us questions. They were polite enough, but something about the “golly, shucks…you’re from the Big City?” tone of their inquiries made us devilish. We began to toy with their idea of what big-city girls were like. I know at one point, with just a mutual knowing look, we simultaneously confessed to the group gathered there that we were lesbians. Girlfriends. They gazed at us with the awe typically reserved for giant killer whales at Sea World.
Not ten minutes later, our Small Town Boy would approach us and admonish, “What, you’re dating now?” with a sly grin. “This must be boring for you. Let’s get out of here.”
His high school friends didn’t want him to go, and maybe wanted The Lesbians to stay, too. I don’t know. But we disentangled ourselves and got back into the car. He drove us to a nearby cemetery, telling us he had liked to spend time here in the evenings, when he’d still lived here. We struggled to keep up with him as he walked confidently in the path he’d walked so many times before. It was a new moon, and we grabbed at each others’ hands, giggling, as we tripped along, stumbling among the dead.
Suddenly, he was inspired. “OH! I know where I have to take you guys,” as he tugged us in a line back to the parked car. We drove through a forest for an eternity, or so it seemed. It was dark as could be, and we occasionally crossed paths with the wildlife in the area. He giggled like a kindergartner, so excited was he to bring us to his favorite spot. We finally reached an end point in the gravel road, and saw before us what seemed to be a pedestrian bridge. He cut the engine, the lights. He turned to look at his passengers, now humbled by the reversal of roles. I recognized the shift: I was the one out of my element. I could not joke my way out of this as I had in the field-party. I was about to be schooled.
He opened the doors, especially aware of my terrible low-light vision, taking my hand. We three now made our way out onto the wooden plank bridge, to the middle portion of the span. “Now lay down and look up,” he whispered.
We did. It had to have been midnight or later by now, and we were completely isolated. No lights, no errant fireworks, no moon…but the sky was absolutely brilliant with stars. I know I gasped in the most stereotypical of ways, and that he and Myra smiled sardonically at me. “Never seen stars before?” he quipped.
“Yes, but I’ve never seen the Milky Way before,” I breathed. I knew without looking the incredulous look on his face as he studied me. He squeezed my hand, and tears pricked my eyes.
I was immeasurably happy, but still I felt sadness, too. For the ending of our relationship, for the reason it had ended, for all the hardship that would follow for him, for the immense love I still felt for him. I knew I would love him always, that the way in which I loved would shift slightly but never dissipate. I just wanted things to be simple. I wanted things to be as simple as this: wood meeting bones, hands meeting hands, breath meeting air, water meeting rock.
For a long time we just laid there, enjoying the closeness without exchanging words. Here were two people I felt knew me intimately, with whom speaking was unnecessary to express what was inside at that moment. It was cold, even with my sweatshirt on, and I shivered. But I never wanted to leave this place. I would have happily embraced hypothermia if I could lie there forever with my friends, feeling so small and yet so precious at the same time. Knowing that I was never alone. I was needed. I needed.
The end did come, as the end always does. We walked in silence back to the car, held our breath as he did a many-pointed turn to get us headed back out of the woods, the bridge disappearing in the red taillights.
When we got back to the house, we were half-frozen in the way that prolonged exposure produces. The cold seeped out of us as slowly as it had worked its way in…we three huddled up together under a mountain of quilts, still holding on to one another. I would wake the next morning late, and find myself still entangled but warm again. And I knew that this was true: we would go separate ways, do our own things in this life, but would never stop needing the hands we held in the cold starry night.