By Matthew McGuirk -
The comfort of country air is something I’m growing to appreciate. The silent pauses with my hands in the dirt or even the barbed stem of a freshly cut rose, getting back at me for taking it off its life source is a far cry from the four decades I spent in the city. If the country sends whispers on the clear night air, then the city sends screams through streets stuffed with coughing exhaust. I still miss the city though because it was all I knew.
I ran the streets as a boy, met up with a few friends at the park and played hoops on hot blacktop until we saw older guys coming to muscle us out. We turned corners to a local pizza shop and bought slices with cheese that ran strings down to our shoelaces with money our parents gave us. School was always throwing on the right persona: navigating between parents’ expectations, teachers' careful eyes and sects of bullies and gangs that used lockers as a tool to filch any extra cash you had. I did pretty well in my classes, even though I put on an attitude with my friends that said otherwise. I even had some English teachers write recommendations and I ended up following those up with a bachelor’s in journalism. Digital and TV was in vogue as I was making my way through, but I’d already fallen for print and that was the direction I went.
I graduated at the turn of the century, Y2K as it was called and the world didn’t end, but that would have been a hell of a story for someone to write, but then again no one would be around to do it, so I guess it’s better it happened the way it did. I got some bit pieces my first year and had to deliver pizza part time before I really started making a name for myself. Everyone agreed the writing was good, but what I lacked was experience. I think we all got a dose of that in September of 2001 and I was thrown a humanitarian story in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. I was asked by my editor, through the fog of smoke in his office, to check out this small diner downtown that was giving away free meals to anyone who was impacted by the tragedy. When I got there, the staff was cranking out tickets, the manager was running the grill on the hot side and there was really no one to talk to but the waitresses. Fortunately for me, I saw one that could help me out. She had her dirty blonde hair tied back in a ponytail and a smile as she ran tickets to the window. Her uniform had grease stains on the apron and her makeup was running in streaks from the heat of the kitchen. She was stunning even with all those imperfections.
“Hey,” the only word that could escape my mouth as I nudged my way to the counter.
She paused for a minute, turned and pulled a tip off the table and stuffed it in the apron before answering, “hey, can I get you something?” That smile was like the perfect lead to a story I had already started writing in my mind.
“I’m actually writing a piece for the paper on what you guys are doing here, really great stuff.”
“Nothing the city doesn’t deserve,” she looked down the counter to someone giving the nod to order. “I’ll be back.” I watched her navigate past another waitress clacking the old school register and dip under a plate that was coming from the kitchen in another’s hand.
She came back after taking three more orders at that end of the counter, but I didn’t really get anything worthwhile to put in the story. I ended up tearing off a piece of my pad of paper and sticking it between 5 one-dollar bills with my number and that’s how we started dating.
Our thing was coffee and pizza and riding the subway at night just because we could. She always threw her hands in her back pockets versus holding mine, but that always made me want her more. Her face was one that belonged to everyone, a face that made people turn and smile just because she was always grinning.
Things progressed quickly with us and I wasn’t afraid to tell her how I felt. Our thing was love notes; my thing was love notes and her thing was reading them. They were mostly love notes, sometimes like notes, sometimes funny and sometimes sad. She blushed when I compared her to flowers, even though that’s a little cliché; she smiled when I said her voice was sweeter than she liked her coffee, even though that was true and she winked at me when I said she had more talents than remembering orders and looking good in her apron, even though I thought the comment came off a little sexist and almost took it back. She normally got a little giddy when she’d find one of my slips of paper ripped off my journalist pad, folded and stuffed away between books or mugs or propped up against a box of cereal or stuck on the fridge. The words didn’t have to be much, didn’t need to be rewritten or revised like a story, didn’t even need to be neat, they just needed to be.
The letters from my little pad were anniversary gifts and move in with me questions and one day forthe question. Imagine popping the question through a note, but the love notes on my weathered pads were our thing and it needed to happen that way. I remember scrawling the handwritten note and ripping it off. The letter said I’d write notes to her for as many days as we’d both live and even give her two on some days if that’s what made her happy. The note got a titter and then a gushing sob when she read the penned line everyone uses to propose at the end.
I still think about those letters when I’m planting rose bushes, or lilacs, or hydrangeas. I still think about the white pad and the grey penciled letters when I’m looking at the stark red of a rose opening up, the vibrant purple of a lilac or the pinks and blues of my hydrangeas. The flowers look nothing like the notepad or city streets or our first apartment or a coffee mug with a lip smudge on the rim, but those memories are what I think about when I’m digging the holes with the fine point of a long-handled shovel under a warm sun and what I’m turning over in my head when I untangle the roots a little and stick them in the virgin soil.
I think more about the letters now than I did as the years of our marriage carried on. The letter a day and sometimes two if it made her happy turned to a letter a week and then a letter a month and then only on special occasions and then it was as if the pad had disappeared, even though I carried it to work and home each day and used it to pencil in a quote from a business owner, college athlete or citizen concerned about pollution within the city. My notes became less frequent, but she was the one who began sending some my way. Hers were not handwritten on pads of journalist paper, they were messages through a phone and unanswered calls. They were long winded sets of characters and single words with question marks through texts, they were voicemails that uttered both questions and answers or ones that stayed silent on the other end of the phone.
The last set of letters I got from her were paper ones and they indicated we would no longer be we or us; we were now going to be she and he or him and her, or just two people that weren’t mentioned in the same breath or that didn’t pass notes back and forth.
After the split, I took my belongings and moved to the country. I threw my journalist notepad in the trash and left a career and woman I’d known for almost 20 years for a place I wasn’t sure I could make work and the promise of silence. I still kneel here in front of a row of bushes beside a house that needs painting and think about those letters. The letters that took a fraction of the time it takes to plant one of these bushes, the letters that take no more time than cutting half a dozen roses and putting them in a vase with water, and the letters that meant so much even though they only took those brief moments to construct. So I continue to plant these bushes and tend to the beauty that’s in the country, the beauty that’s tried to replace the slices of greasy cheese pizza eaten on hard subway seats, or the coffee and conversation interrupted by the abrasive words from a man whose order came out wrong, or the little hand written notes that were placed around a small apartment in the middle of the city that made a woman smile or laugh or cry.
Matt McGuirk teaches and laughs at his puns by day and scribbles somewhat coherent words nightly. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. Words in The Daily Drunk Magazine, Goat’s Milk, Idle Ink, Maudlin House, Purple Wall Stories, Sledgehammer Lit, Versification and others. You can find him on Twitter @McguirkMatthew and on Instagram @mcguirk_matthew.