We were children, not lovers, but as we lay on the grass looking at stars, talking of angels, she took my hand and said that a moment can change everything. When I think of Sissy Zaleski, and I do now more often than ever, I always remember her that night. Splayed out on the earth as though floating just an inch above the ground, she told me in the strange quiet of the countryside, where silence is made up of infinite little sounds, that there would be signs, forever.
“I’m not tricking you, Tom. You know that, don’t you? I’m just telling you how it is and how it’s going to be. When we get older and we’re not friends like now, ’cause we’ve gone away or got a job or got married, I’m going to send you signs to remember us now, this very second. Do you believe me?”
“What sort of signs?”
She might have been about to answer when the lamplight came through the leaves, but I was already on my feet, tugging her up, dragging and scrambling with her hand tight in mine, keeping low to the ground as the lamplight swept to and fro, a hulking shadow stomping behind it.
“Sissy, you better not be out here with that boy! You hear me?”
Even now I can see her pa. A stomper, always a stomper, with dark eyes and a darker brow. And always dangerous, with tools in bulging pockets. That night he stomped the earth, and we rushed into the night. In the trees, near the stream, we stopped and sat on our haunches, breathing hard, breathing the woods. We stayed liked that, frozen in our fear, until I moved closer and whispered in her ear
“Why does he hate me so? I ain’t done nothing bad.”
She moved closer still. “He thinks if it weren’t for you, I’d stay indoors more with him. He’s got worse since mum left. He gets worse every day. Truly, he does.”
I looked into her eyes. Then, like idiots feeling safe and holding nothing back, we hugged together, so close I could feel her heart next to mine. I don’t know who kissed whom first. But once, thirty-three years later in a room in Blackpool, watching as my wife combed her hair, ochre red like Sissy’s, it came to me with force as crushing as gravity. If I’d kept Sissy closer, if I’d never let her go so easy, it could have been her combing herself in front of me then. I wonder now if that was the first signal, or if they’d been coming all those years after and I’d just blanked them out, pressed them down, scared of what they said.
I’ve had no worse parting than that night. I didn’t want her to go, but once we finished, and we realized what we’d done and how now I was more, much more than a forbidden friend, she was shaking so hard I thought she might die on me. With the taste of her on my lips, I sneaked us out of the trees. We scurried close to the ground, as fast as we could, and I took her back to the lair of her pa. I kissed her again then, in the shadows. It was the bravest thing I’d ever done. I wanted to show her that even though she was going back, I wouldn’t desert her. Not ever.
She didn’t come to school for a few days after that and then I found out it was she who was leaving me. Going to back to Poland, that’s what my friend said, to the motherland of her ancestors, as far as the stars for me. I didn’t believe him at first, how could I? Since that night, she’d been in every one of my thoughts, colouring them like ink spilled in water. But then they announced it at school, last thing in assembly, after the morning prayers. And when everyone else filed out, I just sat there. Cross-legged and dazed.
I saw her once afterwards. She sneaked round my house, she couldn’t stay long, she said. She threw herself onto the sofa and started wrestling cushions, banging her fists and asking me that if there was a god, then what was he doing to make her pa so mad to leave. I wanted to say things to make her feel better but I couldn’t, because I knew that it was me that caused it. I wanted to kiss her again too, but my mum was lurking, so I just held her hand and said I’d write every day.
Look out for the signs, she said before she left. Little things, I’ll send them and you’ll remember me. I know it. And I did to start with. I looked out all the time, but as I grew up and as I changed from a boy to man, I stopped searching or maybe I just stopped seeing. Life does that to you, I suppose, clouds things over.
So why is it only now that my life is drowsy with dreams of her? And what does it mean that a smell, a word, the single sigh of an owl can make me think of Sissy? Nearly a whole life I’ve lived without her, got jobs, gone away and been married, but only now do I see that she was right. That one moment, one bright culmination of everything, can change you from children to lovers and that you can never, ever, go back again.
Joel Willans writes out of Helsinki, Finland.