Spirit Reports Chapter 5: Lizzie

            The dirt driveway that leads up the hill to Lizzie’s house is marked by an enamel sign that reads “Lucky Pines.” I remember when I first saw it. It was the first time I’d stopped by to drive Lizzie to school early one fall morning in our senior year of high school. It’s been almost a full four years since then. Now, in my senior year of college, I think about her most in the early morning.

I tend to imagine a few repeating quiet moments I spent in that house. To me, the place always exists in a perpetual morning mist in the summertime. I had just turned eighteen. I imagine my younger-self rising from his position on the floor after a night spent sleeping on couch pillows and throw blankets made up to form something of a bed. I’m there with some old friends. We have all drifted since our mutual meeting place became quiet.

I am always the first to wake up in my imagined morning. My dreams of Lizzie’s house feel like my way of making up for lost time in a land where the fog never burns off from the kettle pond down the hill, and the dew never leaves the blades of grass out by the tall pine trees. The embers of the fire pit are always on the cusp of burning out. I am always dreaming of the night before, nights already solidifying into my younger self’s mind in the form of songs and prose that would haunt him like a lost golden age. I’d already begun to eulogize the place in my writing. I think I knew that would happen back then, even before Lizzie died.

Lizzie had a kind face and long blonde hair. She wasn’t afraid to make silly faces for the sake of a joke. She never seemed to take anything more seriously than it needed, except living life for the sake of itself. I could tell, even from the first day I ever spoke to her for real when I drove her to school in my father’s car, that she was brilliantly serious about living a life worth the effort. I was an often-melancholic teenager back, and to me this attitude was like the first hint of a spring wind in the dead of a New England winter. Lizzie and I would sit next to each other in class and I used to watch her draw intricate floral-patterns on her physics notes. They were practical and beautiful.

On one morning sometime around October of 2012, she gave me a paperback copy of Emily Dickinson’s complete poems that she’d found at a yard sale up in Vermont. It’s still on my bookshelf in my mother’s house, waiting after all this time to be read. Every once and awhile, I flip through the pages hoping to find some missed message from Lizzie in ballpoint pen or pencil. Such a message does not exist. There is no dirt driveway leading to the past in a used book of poetry that I never got around to reading.

Lizzie and I made a ritual of getting coffee and doing homework together after school on a little spot in the sun the academy had dubbed “the senior patio.” It was just a little slate patio situated at the backdoor of the school, which as the name suggests, only the senior class could use. It was one of those strange traditions that all small private schools have. My father attended a similar one back in Cleveland Ohio, though the increased size and wealth of his old high school certainly allowed for more extravagant traditions than a simple slate patio. But that was my tradition, and I treasure it still.

Lizzie and I would give up on our work after not very much time, and when the weather was warm enough, sit outside singing and playing guitar. The place where we used to sit is gone now. I saw where it used to be a few months back to the school for the first time in several years. I think during some renovations the academy tore up the ground where it once was to make way for some new addition to the building. I think it was a new and improved morning meeting space to replace the converted gym and auditorium used during my tenure at the school. We called it the “Cafa-Gyma-Torium,” because the space was literally a gym converted into an auditorium that was also used as a sort of cafeteria for homemade school lunches eaten at half past ten in the morning.

I can feel through the new addition’s foundations the magnetism of the spot where Lizzie once made new for me the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. Of course I’d heard the song before from my mother’s collection of CDs, but to hear Lizzie play it was to hear a whole musical tradition for the first time. I put off that night’s four hours of homework and learned that song for myself in less than a day to try and impress her. Having relearned the song a few times in the years since, I know during those days of my fledgling musicianship that I played the chords and the picking pattern wrong. But I practiced them to something that sounded alright to us, again and again, all night and well into the next morning, trying to get the fingers of my right hand to move across the strings with some semblance of grace.

There was this one time that year that Lizzie and I drove back from a school dance  with James and our Slovakian exchange student Jaro. We stopped on one of the beaches between our school and Main Street. Cape Cod is a land of beaches. Travel in any direction, and you will find yourself once again at the water’s edge. When you look out across Vineyard Sound, you will see the lights of Martha’s Vineyard, a rhythmically blinking line of signals stretching across the bay. A horizon of lighthouses blinking out identifying patters, and high above them are the red lights marking FM radio towers.

I used to smoke cigarettes back then. I was talking to Lizzie about how I’d almost died the previous year from my brain aneurysm and how with the cigarette I was holding clumsily in my hand, I would at long last vanquish the anxiety that had haunted me during the year since then. I smoked the cigarette down to the filter and buried the butt in the sand with the heel of my foot. In doing so, I accidentally stepped into the ocean and soaked one of my canvas sneakers with salt water. Lizzie laughed at me then for my misstep into the Atlantic, rather than at my absurd gestures about vanquishing anxiety with tobacco. She told me it was alright. She was kind to me in a way that I didn’t understand then. She once told me this story about these turkeys that used to descend from the woods near her house and bat their heads against the windows before they would run as a group down the hill to gain flight. They only ever managed to run into some nearby pine trees. When I think of my moments of self-expression when I was seventeen, I see myself bashing my head against my memory of children’s hospital intensive care units and the feeling of stitches shallow in the skin to hide the three titanium screws which ran much deeper. I suppose then I perceived that hole in my skull as the window to my own soul. Knock it enough times, and you might just manage to pry the door loose. I blew out a cloud of smoke and trudged back to the car with seawater in my socks.

The night before Lizzie was due to go to college, I drove her home from some night out with our friends, and together we sat in the driveway of her house under the dim ceiling light my father’s jeep. I think I was crying then, overwhelmed by the choice of what to do with my college education, and in constant argument with my father over my dream of being a writer. English class had become my home, and I wanted to continue on the path. She told me to do it. In the wake of my stroke, in the wake of my father’s fears for my future, in the wake of everything. Try: If it is the life you want to live. She used to always say, “stay fluid.” It was that same attitude she told me then. Even if it didn’t work out, that wasn’t failure. I wasn’t really. Rather, it was the time to take on dreams and follow the dirt to where they might lead, even if that destination was another road different than where I meant to be. “Four years of summer camp to find yourself,” is what she told me while I was crying like an idiot with both our seats in the car all the way back. We were rolled over on our sides looking at each other. I did study English. I am a writer. I only wish Lizzie had gotten more than the months of the summer camp for the soul to find herself. I wish we could have gotten here together.

Lizzie’s funeral was my freshman year of college. It was attended by everyone I knew from my hometown in those days. I haven’t seen many of them since. Life moved fast as soon as we all left Cape Cod. I remember the songs that were sung and the people who spoke in the white halls of the protestant church. I remember greeting my old high school teachers who were in attendance. I remember thanking some of them for all they’d done for us. It seemed only right. The last time I could thank them as a child, before I was a man who had had something taken that he could not get back. Outside the First Congressional Church of Falmouth Massachusetts on an overcast day in Early summer, we were all as one. That was to be the last time. It’s been years since then. It’s been years since I got a call about Lizzie’s hospitalization. It’s been years since she collapsed in the middle of Bard’s campus freshman year. It’s been years since her heart stopped working without warning.

I once asked my old high school friend Savannah, a little while after the funeral, if she thought Lizzie would have turned out like us, unsure of ourselves in our rapid approach to our late 20’s, reconciling the echoes of our former friendships as we drifted apart. Savannah said no. Lizzie was already herself back then. Sure, we all had growing up to do, but Lizzie knew herself in a way that we would probably only achieve if we really saw something glorious in the world, if we ever saw it at all. From the Lucky Pines, where the small house of my once living friend still stands, in my mind I can feel from the air a call to the heat of summer, no matter how far I have drifted from my former idea of myself.

To people like us, of course she seemed special. She was both one of us, but also greater than our youthful imaginings, our dramatic gestures, and misremembered episodes of teenage mischief and smoke. If I met her today, in all my bitterness and experience, I like to think she’d still be the same. I try to remind myself that back then there was good in us, and that there probably still is. When I remember mornings at the Lucky Pines, walking on the floor in the midst of the fog, I am flipping through the pages of the past, like seeking out a hidden signal written in ballpoint pen between the pages of the book of poems given to me on a long ago October morning. There isn’t any message, no call back over the sound from some distant FM radio tower. But I’ll keep hitting my head against the window to the long ago scene of that night. If only I might have the chance to say, “thank you” while there was still time. It seems to me like the right thing to do.


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