Rewind. It’s summer, in Baltimore, back when we were teens. We grab Coke cans and chicken from Royal Farms before heading to the Gunpowder River. I lost my pink flip-flop there, remember? I cry as I cling to the mud, because those were my Dora flip-flops, and hop from stone to stone on bare, calloused feet. You laugh, grab a stick, and start fishing for the flip-flop. We never find it, giving up searching after twenty minutes. Frustrated, I shove you into the water, and, for a second, I fear you are drowning. But then you emerge, laughing and snorting water out of your right nostril. We lie side by side, the mud sticking to our shirts and the one flip-flop I have left dangling off my right foot, and stargaze, humming old jazz songs we’d heard my papa listening to in the basement.
Fast forward. I live in the Caribbean part of Flatbush, in central Brooklyn. My apartment is often too hot, so to get the circulation going in my room, I crack open the side window. In the apartment building across from me, about three floors down, every night an elderly couple waltzes around their kitchen. Their window, too, is open. They listen to all the old classic jazz singers: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. The music is faint, but I still cling to every word, every note drifting upwards. Here, in autumn, somewhere in New York City, I feel like I am dancing with this couple, even though I am intruding on an intimate moment, one shared between lovers, comrades, lifelong friends. I consider writing them a letter about our shared experience, folding it into a paper airplane, and taking the best aim I can. Maybe I’d tell them about you, the boy who disappears. By the end of the month, I am back home, humming the songs they taught me. The letter remains in my journal, unfinished and unsent.
Rewind. Autumn, somewhere. Senior year. I step out onto the porch with a pitcher of iced tea and see your momma and her little Toyota in the driveway. She’s smoking, flicking the ashes into the perennials. When she sees me standing wide-eyed on the porch, she slams her palms against the horn and lets the sound echo across the neighborhood. One of her rearview mirrors is partially shattered. In between the ruckus, screaming and spitting and flicking her ashes into the iced tea, she says you are gone. I offer her a cup anyways. She takes the drink and throws it at me, reversing out of the driveway. My hair, sticky and tangled, reeks of syrup and tea for days. When I go to school the next day, you aren’t there. I eat lunch alone in the courtyard, running a hand through the mangled knots in my hair. You aren’t there the next day. Or the day after that. Days became weeks, then months, then years.
Fast forward. In between shifts at the bar, I am alone on the subway, doodling sketches of the orange seats. I glance up, then I see someone who looks like you. He has the same exact triangle of freckles you have under your lip. He has pierced ears, a stud in his cartilage that glimmers whenever the Chinatown light hits it at the right angle. I almost reach out and touch him, just to prove that you are still here. I see his phone; he listens to all the jazz that you used to love. I feel a knot in my stomach, nausea piling up. As soon as the doors open, I run off at Canal Street, puke beside a boba shop. From inside, the workers watch with wide, horrified eyes. I know it wasn’t you. It’s never you. But I am still looking, and will never stop doing so.