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Experience


In my early twenties, I was friends with a woman who told me she wanted to be like the moon. How she longed to go through phases like half, new, and full that were so nakedly visible, that her lovers, strangers—even passersby—would have no choice but to notice her. I was her confidant then, her companion, I thought so at least, though it’s possible I was just another hanger-on.

My friend was pretty in an ordinary way. Brown hair to the shoulders, nose slightly hooked, a semi-noticeable gap between her two front teeth. I’d just left home when we met—a young man in a new city, living alone for the first time, and I’d listen to her lunar speech and long for a Barcalounger big enough for the two of us to lie on. A place where we might watch our lives unfold, forearm to forearm, shin to shin, in the middle of some overgrown meadow. I was a romantic, back then, and I believed in possibility, in the cyclical nature of the universe, and that if I listened intently enough, I might find my place within it.

Our favorite pastime was to take long walks. I’d meet her outside of the old Victorian she rented, an apartment like the attic of a doll’s house, and we’d spend hours rambling around. Like sentences, was how I liked to think of it, and in truth, our walks were a lot like the conversations that we first had together. We’d go up and down searching for something new, usually finding nothing when we looked, and everything when we didn’t. That was the nature of my life then, too, though it took me many years to realize it (I’m still realizing it to this day).

Fall afternoons, early winter evenings, wandering side by side, only stopping for the occasional warm whiskey, a shared cone of Belgian fries, to peer into the darkened display of a shop window, our breath small, pale clouds before us. We were alive, I believed, alive with our youth, our yearning, the knowledge that most of what we’d experience, the pleasure and pain of it, was yet to come.

Now though, looking back, I wonder how much life she allowed herself to feel. She yearned to be like the moon, after all. Never more than the reflection of someone else’s light.

And what does truth matter when we’ve decided who it is that we are.


Springtime arrived in gauzy green. She and I lived at the edges of a small city and overnight everything became bright and bloom and the sickly-sweet smell of mulch. Spring had introduced new blood into our hearts, a necessity I hadn’t anticipated during the stern phase of winter.

Whereas before our conversations felt important and grave, now they began to feel spirited, molecular, raw. We couldn’t get enough of one another’s company. We’d meet in the early evenings after her shift at the bookstore, mine at the café, and we’d be ripe fruit, bursting in our separate skins. It was then she first revealed to me her theory of “life-changing moments,” and at the beginning, I was rapt, an attendant listener, her quiet satellite.

The first “moment” she described to me had taken place on a weekday afternoon, a few years before we met. She’d taken a walk during her lunch hour at the shop, invigorated by the warm April weather. She passed a toy poodle alone and collarless on a stoop. As she was nearly past the dog, it began to yip at her, running back and forth in front of the rowhome’s ajar door. She told me she never doubted her choice. She followed the dog up the steps, through a dusty foyer and into a kitchen with yellow walls and a great granite island. Here, she found a woman lying on the floor. An older woman with gray cropped curls who had died in the last hour or so.

My friend found a phone (this being the era of landlines) and called the police. An ambulance arrived and she related her story, learning from the medics that the woman had likely suffered a heart attack. My friend said the woman looked exactly like her own grandmother who died when my friend was on a beach vacation with her childhood friend. This was life-changing, she told me. Afterwards, she was never the same.

Another of these “moments” happened the week before we met. She was walking down Harbor Street, a street we walked down often, and she was distracted, daydreaming about an upcoming blind date, when she stepped directly into a shoeprint in the concrete, a perfect match for her own foot. It was uncanny, she told me, her eyes wide and round, the whites showing.

I asked her what made this special, an act which seemed so small and insignificant, so random? What made any of it special, really? How did she know what mattered and what was simply life? A moment, without any life change, just the same as before?

She said it had to do with belonging, of course. All these humans, and she was one of them, and so was I. Didn’t I understand? I smiled, unsure.

I can’t remember what I said, only that I must eventually have agreed. Wanting us to continue on as always. Afraid likely, though of what I’m not sure.

Disappointment, I suppose. Though was it hers, or mine?

All spring long—March, April, May—she and I wandered, mostly happy, zapped by existence and sunshine, her narrating these life-changing moments and me answering her questions about my life, my childhood, what shaped the man I was trying to become, the terrain of my mind’s interior. And I can admit now I was never sure I had these answers right, her way of knowing the self—maybe hers alone.

At the time, I envied her ability to collect experiences, to label the things that happened to her and give them significance, as if each act belonged, was necessary to forming the vertebrae of her life. I wondered why my own life felt so untidy in comparison. My living a cluster of unnamed stars, no constellations, nothing ordered, numbered, all my heat and energy, raw, and, so far, useless.

But I was happy just to know her, my first adult friend. I was naïve to think it might last forever.

But youth is that way, I’ve come to believe, invincible until it’s not.


By late June, our connection might already have been waning. She wore sandals, and I dressed in shorts, my slim calves leeching summer color. We’d meet up after work, same as always, but gradually something felt different. If I were her, I might have said it was that we no longer saw the trees as explosions of green, but as a series of, well, sycamores and pines. I wonder if I was familiar to her then, no longer an unknown quantity, stale. Or she to me.

One particularly quiet Thursday in July, an evening rife with conversational hiccups, she stopped us in the middle of a block, said wait, leaned conspiratorially forward, her hands folded against her chest. She said she’d figured it out, and sadly, it was all her fault.

She told me she’d become someone who no longer experienced life-changing moments.

I told her this was ridiculous. New experiences would surely come along. Hadn’t we ourselves decided that life always seemed to happen when we weren’t looking for it? Both men I’d loved had found me when I couldn’t see straight. How was that for proof?

This logic did nothing to change her mind. Instead, she went out the next day and bought a map of our pretty little city and a box of pushpins, and she put the pushpins on the map on every spot where she’d had an epiphany in the past. I told her I thought it looked like acupuncture. Needling out the tension from those locations where she’d previously undergone psychic growth. She told me she hoped the pins on the map would make a shape—a face, a star—but they didn’t, of course.

The map helped us see, however, there were plenty of places we hadn’t yet explored in our wanderings. Namely, a small lake on the easternmost part of our city hidden by forest. She said to feel whole she’d have to go to this lake. Continue going until whatever was supposed to happen there would happen. I asked her why now of all times she’d decided to believe in fate?

But did she answer me? I can’t remember. Instead, an image of her face, round and pale, despite the sun we both lived under.

Maybe then I first wondered if we were as alike as I’d wanted us to be. I told her of course I would go to the lake with her. I was her friend.


Two days later, each of us managing to beg off work, we took the bus to the lake. I wore striped trunks, and she wore a polka-dotted two-piece. I carried a cooler packed with roast beef sandwiches and cubed melon. She brought the towels.

The lake lay tucked away in a glen in the woods. Moss grew on the surrounding tree trunks, and the banks were sandy with small rocks. I remember feeling like I was returning to my childhood in Oregon, but I didn’t say anything to her about what I felt that day. Somehow, it felt wrong to share my thoughts. In fact, I could barely manage to say much of anything that day at the lake. Even after my experience, when I came as close to knowing her as I might ever know another person, I couldn’t utter words. As if they weren’t mine to say.

Only a handful of other people were at the lake that day. Two women with small children, a man fishing. It was a small enough lake that we could circle it in a matter of an hour. We sat on one bank, then on the next. We swam some. She would say something to me every now and again, vague chatter about the water, the blueness of the sky, the prehistoric greenery, but mostly she was quiet, and so was I.

We were both lost somewhere in our heads, I think. Or I was, but I don’t know if she was. I could sense a desire in her, like she kept thinking a snake was going to fly out of the water and land in a tree branch. Or a child would start to drown, and she would save him. I knew by her stories that life experiences could be big or small, but somehow, they always involved timing. That one spectacular moment of being that could only be happening right then. That because her eyes glinted greenly off the water, she saw the diamond her great aunt had lost, fallen to the bottom of this lake miles and years before.

I knew she needed something meaningful to happen, or at least something she could decide was meaningful later on. She wanted to feel alive again, lit by the world, important. And because I cared for her, I would stay by her side, I’d wait until whatever she needed came to be.


Dusk fell, and she was asleep on one of the banks. The wind picked up, rippling the water, an endless series of parabolas fanning out. The fisherman and the women with the children had left or were packing up to go. I remember feeling like this was the end of the world and I might be the only person left. That I ought to wake her, but I would take a little longer, wait just a bit more.

I was floating on my back, looking up at the sky through a breach in the clouds you could only see when in the very middle of the lake. The trees swayed with the wind, the vaguest hint of their leaves whispering at the edges of my vision. I paddled softly with my feet, making sure I just stayed afloat. As the water warmed my body against the cooling air, I closed my eyes, breathed in deeply and then, all of a sudden, it hit me. An insane feeling of what it is to be alive. It was like my heart yawned open and, in that moment there bloomed a violent bouquet of red and green and small sailboats, life preservers in every color but orange, and paintings that my father drew on my birthday cards, and every awesome vision I’d ever had, what I thought about religion and my first word and the powerful love I felt for my dear friends and every strand of their hair. It all came together in this one absurd second, my mouth spilling open, my face lit from within forming an impossible smile, and my legs slipped through the water underneath me as I bobbed up splashing around, wild.

I remember thinking this must be what she feels like when she has life changing moments. And I wondered why I’d felt it instead of her this time. I swam over to the bank, and it was around then she woke up from her nap. I asked her if anything had changed. She said, no, that we ought to go home so we could try again the next day.

Breathless, I agreed.


I never told her I had a life experience that day. It just didn’t seem appropriate. And, after all, perhaps she’d had one as well. Or so she decided a few days later when nothing continued to happen. After all, hadn’t trying something unsuccessful disheartened her spirit? And—she smiled at me—a disheartened spirit, that was something to work with. No, never mind. It didn’t matter. She looked at me for a long moment, then looked away.

A few months later, when she and I had stopped spending as much time together, our lives drifting apart as lives do—my new job at the archive, and her new girlfriend, Bo—I ran into her on a bench outside the library. She told me that, in retrospect, she did feel like something special might have happened that day at the lake. Her cheeks were red from the early fall chill. She bit her lip as she spoke, concealing the gap between her teeth.

I wondered if she might have sensed what I’d experienced. That my light might have reflected off her. But still I said nothing. I told her it was good to see her, that I missed her, and that we ought to get together sometime soon for a whiskey or a walk. Then I rode my bike off to meet a new friend, a young man with dark hair and an overbite, someone I hoped I might love.


Back then, she and I looked at many things: petunias, and traffic lights, all kinds of rain clouds, the dew on blades of grass, the things people carved into the sidewalk, hieroglyphics of our time.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I close my eyes, and I picture a small Colorado town in the mountains. I picture us walking through its streets, and then I picture all of that really being a painting somewhere. I wonder, sometimes, what I mean by this, but I’m not worried. And she shouldn’t be either, wherever she is.

Though who am I to tell her as much.

 

Rebecca Bernard’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Southwest Review, Colorado Review, and North American Review among other places. Her debut collection of stories won the 2021 Non/Fiction Prize held by The Journal and is forthcoming from OSU’s press in fall 2022. She recently started as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Angelo State University, and she serves as a fiction editor for The Boiler.


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