I was living out west the first time I fell in love, tending horses at a ranch in Colorado and writing luxuriant letters home to my best friend. Mornings, I’d wake when the sun was a pencil of light on the horizon and rub the horses down in the gloaming. The air was crisp, clean and hawks careered through acres of sky. That summer, I pictured myself spending my life mending fences and riding alongside cattle, an image drawn from movies I’d seen late at night.

I remember—for what we remember is the strangest thing about us—steam rising from the flanks of a colt, and the black splotches that ran through its white fur, oblongs, rhomboids, shapes I’d see later in modernist paintings in New York. I remember its eyes rolling until they were a field of white and the way its hooves cut the air to ribbons. Up until that point, I’d never seen anything so scared in my life. Save once, when I’d seen myself in the mirror as a child, hearing my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. My father, from whom I was running like a bullet, I see now.

In the evenings, when the cold light of day had faded, turning everything—rock face, trees, meadows, horses—blue, I’d walk to a small creek on the property, a burbling thing one of the Romantic poets would have memorialized in verse, the way butterflies swept from branch to water, and the fish gathered beneath knuckles of roots.

During the day the owner of the ranch would stalk past the wooden fence corrals where I worked, looking at me from beneath the brim of his hat, windburned skin, eyes like flint. It was the sort of thing in life, which was to happen time and again, when I'd realize I was shitty at something I’d believed I was good at. Later, this would be true of marriage, of fatherhood. Most lives are a short history of such failures and a long history of trying to obscure them.
 I wrote to my best friend.

Down by the water though, if you wait long enough, if you just breathe until you become as much a part of the night as the stream, as the owl, as the branches in the trees, if you stay there, everything starts to wash away, until you feel immensely clean. It’s like being a child, bathed by a caring mother, held close to her, warm. 

By mid-July, I knew I was going to be let go, horses unbroken, cows lost, so I tried to gather all the time left to me at the water’s edge. I watched a pair of house wrens zipping through tangles of branches, snatching at insects in the summer air, pausing to fill the silence with trills.

One afternoon, I watched them darting through the brush and alighting near a nest two bluebirds had made. The wrens, my blessed loving wrens, pushed the eggs out of the nest, where they cracked on the ground. Was I the wren or the bluebird?


 I wrote to my best friend again, knowing I’d be leaving soon.

I’ll be fired soon, and I suppose it’s fine. Turns out, the wrens are murderers anyway, pushed eggs right out of the bluebirds’ nest. But aren’t we all complicit in something we wish we weren’t? Any life, if lived well, will have its share of failures and heartaches. I don’t know if I’m coming home though. Every time I think of my father, sitting in his chair, sipping whiskey quietly, my heart goes quiet, empty of something essential I’m finding out here, maybe love if it doesn’t sound too quaint. 

What does anyone know about love, save God, who has an eternity to ponder it and still wound up killing, if predestination is to be believed, his own son. Strangely, those house wrens too, in their own way, knew of love as did the bluebirds and butterflies and lilies of the field. But what we all knew of love was apportioned in fractions, in different languages or nuances, such that we couldn't communicate what we knew to one another like the people of Babylon or a couple in a failing marriage. I sat by the water, knowing only my allotted portion, tender and small. 


Son, the rancher said, you’re shit at this.

And though it hurt to say it, I replied, you’re not wrong.

Two weeks, he said, then disappeared inside.

I took the train east through miles and miles of prairie, saw a lightning storm turn the sky first that of a dim bulb, then a pale green as though the world was coming to a glorious end. I was religious then and saw signs of Christ everywhere. The rain battered the sides of the train, turning a clean and bright day into pitch-black night. I kept asking myself, is this it, is this the sign?

When we’d passed through the storm, I saw a young woman, her head still bowed in prayer, murmuring. When she looked up, I did the strangest thing I’d ever done up to that point in my life, I asked her where she was going. All the way to New York, she said. For acting.

My father was thousands of miles from New York, so I decided to follow her there, through great swaths of forest and lakes reflecting the moon and endless stars, wherever the train was taking her, it was also taking me.

You, she asked me?

I don’t remember what I said or how our conversation fell into an easy rhythm, swaying with the movement of the train. Where was I going? I’m not sure I’d ever know how to answer properly. What I remember were the massive white clouds overhead, the giant shadows they cast across the open prairie.

I fell in love with her on that train because I was young and reckless and leaving behind everything I knew for the promise of something new, a pattern I’d repeat over the course of my life. And before the tatters and heartache and ruination, the first movement always feels so good, like the sound of someone playing the piano in a distant room.

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