on kathleen.

by Benjamin Gotchel

“Let’s do something together,” she had said to him as they talked in the hallway before class. And so they did, walking through halls of modern art in the Upper East Side and exchanging stifled laughter and skeptically-raised eyebrows as they browsed. Later, over paninis and steaming coffee, they talked. The words flowed easily, bubbling with humor and candor, until at last, they said good night, and he hoped that it wouldn’t be the last time.

There was a table in their school, outside the library, where they would sit, and talk, and listen. He had found that conversation with her was an excellent opportunity to appreciate the glint of emerald in her eyes, the gentle curve of her lips, the crinkle of her nose when she laughed. Friday nights were his favorite, when the school would all but empty and, against the backdrop of silence and solitude, he felt he could behold her more vividly.

Silence, so often an anxious experience for him, was easy when spent with her. It was not the cold kind of silence, that which freezes and kills, or the thick silence, that which chokes and immobilizes. It was a silence of electric warmth, intimate and inviting.

It was in one of these moments that he first kissed her. 

It was an act of roguish impulse that felt to him quite out of character, and yet had seemed necessary at the time, the natural consequence of the hope that had been building within his chest with each passing day.

They kissed again, on the steps of the National Museum of the American Indian, captured in an errant spotlight. And again, in the halls of a French monastery overlooking the Hudson. And again, on a riverside esplanade, en route to a burger shop. They kissed again and again until they could no longer keep count, yet each still felt like the first, thrilling and silent and bold.

Then, college was over, and they received their diplomas in a grandly-steepled church. And then, she left Manhattan. There was no expectation that he would follow her, she had told him in simple, earnest words. He nodded, then packed his bags, and followed her. It wasn’t that this seemed the obvious decision to him – in fact, it felt like a risk, and he with risk was as oil with water. But still he went, companioned by fear and uncertainty, and it may have been one of the first times he felt truly brave.

So they sunk their teeth into a new city, he from the east beyond the Anacostia River and she from the west, beyond even the reaching grasp of the Orange Line train. Miles, not blocks, separated them now, and he found that nostalgia came easy for the days when he could walk her home, hands entwined, from a long night at the college library. 

This new frontier was one of flux and mystery, labor and sacrifice. Their hours of quietude and conversation were supplanted by the briefest moments together, hard-earned by hours spent job-hunting, working long hours, and navigating the congested asphalt arteries between their homes that coursed through the nation’s capital.

But he was sustained by her soft whispers on late-night phone calls, sustained by their conversations over tea and fluffy pancakes at the diner as they sat side-by-side, even sustained by that electric silence when there were no words to speak. Nor had he followed her empty-handed. He brought his hope with him, unformed and nebulous at first, then with time, forged into a shining metal ring.

He waited, and he prayed, and he hoped.

Then, on a distant, snow-dappled mountainside, by a rushing brook and amongst the rhododendrons, they sat, and they talked, and they listened. And he took that hope, shaped by time and pressure and flame, and he offered it to her. 

And she took it

And together they shared it, and after the snows had thawed, they wed beneath a gazebo in a park, surrounded by verdant tree boughs which glittered and glowed like her sparkling eyes. The ceremony was delightful in its simplicity, like a three-ingredient cocktail, to be sipped and savored, bringing warmth and heady intoxication.

They made their first home in McLean, in a place they called Westfarthing. Their portrait of life together began as a rough sketch, some lines smoother than others, altogether capturing the beginnings of a compelling vision. Westfarthing was the first draft of what life together could be, with messy details scribbled in the margin, like two ferret roommates, lackluster air conditioning, and a giant red couch

They began to transform themselves in this first home, inscribing their commitment into their hearts and into their flesh. And they began to transform each other, too, because as their love melded with the knowledge of what their counterpart yearned for, there was no option besides. He found that as they transformed together, so also they grew closer, and with them grew their love.

In time, the day came to leave Westfarthing behind, so they gathered what they could and moved east. They called their second home the Verdant Hearth, and it was their first chance to make a home truly theirs. Sprawling networks of sidewalk stretched for miles around, and so they walked,

to the grocery store, always with eclectic selections with which to create delightful meals;

to the park, when it filled with sounds of trumpet and saxophone;

to the library, where they would read and discover together.

It was here in the Hearth that they found deep contentment in the normalcy of daily life

He saw the ways she hoped for meaningful community, watched as she labored to cultivate that hope, digging deep and watering often and tending to the bruises and calluses that naturally resulted. And as he watched, he too felt a sprig of something grow within himself. So he joined her in the fields and, in time, others joined them too.

As the years passed, the same streets that led them to adventure and discovery began to feel rougher underfoot without dirt and trees and stone, unformed by Man, to provide counterbalance. And as they began to consider how they might share this life of theirs with another, newer life, their eyes began to turn to the mystery of the horizon.

So again they chose to leave the known behind. And there was good in what they left, but there was also good in what they sought. And so with a truck heavy-laden and hearts full of hope they journeyed north, finding roost among the Appalachians, in a place they would call the Mountain Overlook.

Here, he felt surrounded by the history of his youth, walking old town streets and meeting old town friends. But he was surprised to find there was newness here, too. As they strolled through town she would marvel at buildings he’d never before noticed, and explore nooks and crannies he’s always overlooked. She was a kaleidoscope lens he could peer through, seeing familiar sights reincarnated in brilliant cacophonies of newfound glory.

Here too, among this intermingling of old and new, their hope grew. This time, it took the form of a blue-eyed, button-nosed child with a head of pearly hair and a smile richly sincere. He watched as she, devoted and strong and utterly aglow, birthed this child in the soft light of their bedroom, and he’d never loved her more.

Then it was a time of extremity: thorough exhaustion, intimate connection, potent fear, deep joy, and a shared grief for the other child, the one who they knew well but who was no more. And as they scaled these heights and depths, they clung to each other, and her closeness became ever more precious to him, and he rejoiced in her scent and her laugh and her presence.

They began to seek a new home, a place to raise a child, a place to transform as they transformed themselves. 

They found a drafty house with creaking floorboards and musty air, and they christened it Hillcrest Manor. And day by day, with the help of many hands, they made it their own. The disintegrating windows were replaced, ready now to reveal the beauty of the coming spring. The creaking floorboards were sanded down and coated afresh, ready now to receive their son’s first steps. The walls were cleaned and painted, ready now to reflect the afternoon sunrays on lazy weekends spent in each other’s arms.

And there was still much left undone, but they had mixed their labor with the land, as had their community, whose names were now inscribed upon the very bones of the home. Their efforts now infused this place, and he imagined that if they could split the house open like a geode, it would glimmer with the crystalline beauty of the hope that lived there with them.

And indeed, the hope that had been so soft and slight amongst the towers of Manhattan had burst from his heart, and he could see it everywhere, 

in the glint of gold around his finger, 

in the aromas rising from the harvests of their friendships, 

in the glowing face of their firstborn son, 

and in the nooks and grooves of their new home.

But his favorite place to see it was, and would always be, in the shining emerald of her eyes.