The BystanderJill Alexander Essbaum
You put your hands on her. It is five years ago. Five years ago and to all clocks’ alarm and at an hour unspecified she chimes o fraud, o fraud. Then you regard and re-regard her. Then she boards her plane. Five years ago and nothing of you is a good idea. You are a patriot in no man’s Reich. Non-partisan. Aloof. Precisely beige in your neutrality. You won’t step in. You don’t. It is five years ago. She volunteers a mouth. You pull away as if she’s bleeding fire. Retreat is every army’s arrogance. As if withdrawal lacked cowardice. As if surrender wasn’t brave. This is what she says to you five years ago when you with oddly crude aplomb have shrugged her off, a flak vest you’re longer so invested in protecting yourself with, content (if ill-equipped) to quibble over whether she is Axis or allein. Five years of thoughts like drowsy boats you can’t not steer inside a landlocked ache. Your plan is wet with strategy: A sideline’s still a line drawn in the sand. Five years ago she mails a letter you don’t read, but let her think you do. How cruel. You cache it in a vault beneath the street you’ve cobbled in your spleen. It seemed the right response. But you can’t fill with gold a guilt you don’t think you deserve to feel. Five years. You lay your lips to hers, your conscience cold and white like spiteful stars so long away, or Alps that lie if they suggest they are impartial. Part of every loss is shame. But you—cocksure in ways beyond the one— stand by, Bystander. She steps on her plane. There is no ceremony. She farewells but to the air around you and the concept of your eyes. For you are passive in the present and the past. And from your mirror’s black, scratched glass it is forever those five years ago and your defense is achromatic, nameless, vague. Both walls and woes have ears. And wars have wives. And armories have arms. And heart’s a muscle not a bone. It cannot break. And yet she leaves. And that is that is that. She walks alone in woods and kicks at trees pretending each is you. And calls your empty name. And peers through windows with a want that even controversy can’t console. Five years. A tooth. A wedding band. A middle road of last perhaps. Don’t choose a side? That’s still a choice. Pretend it’s not five years ago, it’s now. Her plane is late. You come to her, a white cross swimming in a red and non-capitulating sea. She doesn’t call you devil and you are not damned. No boxcar is refused. And you are not the man who lets her get away. Instead, you beg her: stay.
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