He remembered her that summer in the hammock, both of them swaying gently in the breeze, though there was no breeze in his memory and therefore it must have been the slight swing of their bodies as he turned the page of the book they were reading. He had always been a fast reader and reached the end of the two pages before she did and waited for her to catch up, trying to guess by her eyes and the flutter of her heart the words she was absorbing, almost pursing his lips with hers as the syllables slipped into her and therefore, he hoped, into him. That motion also must have contributed to the hammock’s movements, the hint of their luscious bodies rubbing against each other in anticipation of what they might do that very night in the back of his father’s car if they were lucky enough to finagle it for the evening. That’s what he remembered, the summer and the hammock and the book and her eyes dropping to the last line interrupted at the bottom and he had guessed right and turned the page and continued to the top simultaneously with her, both of them in sync then as they were in love now, forty years later, that’s what he remembered above all, above all he remembered her.
While at the same time knowing it could not be true.
She had not been there, she could not have been there, they had not yet met.
He had not met her till the next winter. She could not have shared the hammock or the book or the pursed lips or the breeze that wasn’t a breeze but their bodies, by then his dad had lost his job and the family had been forced to leave that house and the apartment where he had introduced the new girlfriend to his parents and brothers several months after they met had no trees and no hammocks, they had sold the hammock secondhand, at a cut-rate price to the people who came to rent the house his family had to vacate. And he had gone back a few years later to show the trees and the hammock to the woman who was now his fiancée, he had sneaked past the gate with her, and there was nothing to show: the trees had been cut down, who knows what the new tenants had done with the hammock, the place where he had spent many summers reading under the leaves and the sky blue with clouds, gone, all gone, not even birds anymore. And she had kissed him and consoled him and said it did not matter, they would be the hammock for each other, they would be the book together, they would sway and swing and swim toward the future and one day, who knows, might afford a house and two trees and a hammock and the leisure to read under clouds or just look up at the constellations and wonder if on other planets in faraway galaxies anybody could be as happy as they were. And they did, they did manage it—but not that summer, not those trees, not that hammock, not that book.
She had not been there, she could not have been there, they had not yet met.
Even so, the memory persisted.
He decided not to tell her. He did not want her to deny what he persistently remembered, to destroy his dream unwittingly, to apply her logical practical mind to his fantasies. He did not want her to think what might possibly be true: that he was going mad.
But it wasn’t that, madness, that’s not what that memory of summer and hammock was about.
He realized it as soon as he decided not to confide it to her, recount the images in his head that did not, that could not, perhaps never would, correspond with reality and chronology and timelines and years and dates, with before and after. It was not that he was crazy.
It was that he was crazy about her.
That after all these decades of joy together, getting better all the time, you’ve got to admit it’s getting better, getting better all the time—even that Beatles song, he had learned it before he had set eyes on her at that café, her hair flashing as she turned from the two desultory young men who were courting her and looking straight at him with a derisive look—the derision for the young men, not for him—as if to say, you can do better than these two dolts, let’s see if you can make me laugh, if you can make me laugh then I will be yours forever. That memory of the café, she could confirm it and often did. They had been over it many times, they had told that tale meticulously to their children, how he had come up to her and said, I can’t help but notice that you are missing something, and she answered, oh yes, what? And he said, laughter, you are missing a good laugh, and she had been silent for a second and then: so you’re a mind reader?, and he had responded, I read everything, but not minds, but I can give it a try, and then she had stood up and said, a try or a trial, and he had said, a try, a trial, a tray, a trail, a train, a troll, let me be your troll—and it had been that last repeated word, troll, that had done it, she delivered a courteous goodbye to the two boring young men and took the hand he was offering her and walked out of the café and into his life, their life. Along with that memory, however, he had juxtaposed and interposed and superimposed another one, another that could not be, had not been, possibly would never be: that she had been present when he had first sung, you have to admit it’s getting better, getting better all the time, and that was impossible, because that song had taken him by storm when he was fourteen, seven years before they had crossed destinies in that café, and even so he remembered her throating the song, initially as a whisper and then chorally and louder with him, they had sung it together, he could see her next to him dancing it with her head, frolicking it with her hips, coming nearer and then further away, he could not recall ever having sung it without her lungs belting it out in unison or a little bit behind his own singing, just like when they read together. All of it true, but that had been later, much later, when they had begun to exchange the songs they loved and knew by heart and some they had adored already and some were new to each of them, but the songs were always renovated, no matter how old and tested they had been in the past, because now they were pooled and redistributed and enjoyed as mutual and communal and combined. Yes, they had carved up their repertoire and devoured it, but later, later, not when he had first heard the song and then spent years singing it without her presence. So how could he remember that she had been so carnally, full-throatedly, chirpingly present when he had first heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? He had been fourteen, and she had been in another city and was twelve at that time, she could not have been in his living room or on the dance floor or at school or by the radio or the jukebox, all the places he recollected her comforting his lonely heart. Just as he remembered her singing Dixie’s Land with him and his mother at the piano, long forgotten, look away, look away, when he was seven, seven years old and singing along with his mother, and he looked back, he did not look away, he looked back at that scene and there she was, the love of his life, holding his hand and echoing his times long forgotten, look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
He could not conceive an existence without her hand in his, stretching forward into eternity but also backwards to the origins.
No, just crazy about her.
Crazy that she had not been there all his life, had not been there at his birth. The image came almost immediately, disavowing the sacrilegious thought of her absence: he saw her standing there, oh boy, standing by the midwife or the doctor or whoever had been there and was just a blur, they were all vague silhouettes, hardly shadows even, except for her, she had helped bring him into this world, she had heard him cry and breath and blessed the breast and the milk and the warm hands that greeted him, she had been there, he knew it was a hallucination, he knew he was time traveling in his mind, mixing up childhood and baby talk and singing adolescence and summers and hammocks, he was creating a false past, he was making a life for himself where he could say, we have been together all my life, even if she had been born two years after he had, and he could not imagine that he had been present at her birth, only her presence at his, crazy, yes, he was going crazy, he was living the past as if it were the present, he refused to believe there was anything he had done apart from her, he refused a life in which she had not been there to chuckle at his jokes and coddle his body and generate three extraordinary and utterly different children, he refused to allow her to be long forgotten, refused to look away, refused a summer and a sky and two trees that she could never have shared, he could not conceive an existence without her hand in his, stretching forward into eternity but also backwards to the origins.
And yet did not dare to tell her what he was thinking.
Did not want her to refute memories that were much stronger than anything real he could check and endorse through photos and calendars and the testimony of others.
He could not help himself, could not control the images of her in every minute of his life up to the moment of that café when she had first lighted up the air around him and sent him that challenge in a glance, infinity in two eyes blazing with desire to be rid of the two boring young men and live the adventure of love with him.
He could not help himself.
But was sad that this was the one thing he could not reveal.
Preferring to nurse those images of a false past in isolation than subject them to her scrutiny, because then he would be bereft, shipwrecked, his memories punctured, unable to continue, he would have to agree that the time without her was long forgotten, he would have to look away, look away, look away.
“What are you thinking, love?” she asked.
“You know what I was thinking, little troll?” she said.
“When this little troll of yours told you that he could read everything but minds, I meant it. So I won’t even try to guess.”
“I was thinking, my dear, my darling, my little troll who cannot read minds but everything else, I was thinking about that summer when we were in the hammock in your parents’ house and there was no breeze but the hammock would sway with our bodies. Ever so slightly, love: because it was really just that I was reading slower than you and you would move with me as I caught up before turning the page. And those two trees and the leaves above, and you said, the leaves in the trees are singing under the sky, you said, men call them leaves because they don’t know the word, they don’t know the word for bird yet. What a lovely summer that was. Do you remember that summer we spent together, when we were young, you and I?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I remember.”