Table of Contents



Nathan Pensky


Two weeks before my girlfriend died, I visited her at college. We walked at night in the city. Chicago. Cold and wet streets and us holding hands, unaccustomed to seeing each other in this new place. We heard choral music and ducked into an alcove, a recessed place in the city walls, a doorway to a church. Inside a choir was practicing vespers.

There is knowledge that can never be told. This memory. You will never see her hair in the glare of the streetlight, the light off of her glasses. Her dark lipstick. The skin of her face, her warm skin. The gap in her teeth. The memory is a heaviness on my chest.

She was light in her clothes. A bird, a dandelion. Her legs in dark green tights. We went to the aquarium and saw a Beluga whale swimming back and forth in a pattern in its tank, a specter rehearsing an elliptical flight over the house of some newly dead beloved. Its skin edged above the top of the water, a soft fleshy disc, firm but pliant, whiter than you could imagine. Crowds filed past it, but we sat and watched.

She was tall for a girl. Her lips parted when smiling but she was self-conscious about her teeth. I was her first boyfriend and she was my first girlfriend and we were clumsy and natural with each other and told each other everything and it did not seem possible that we would not know each other forever in the same way we knew each other then. Would it have ended? She was tall for a girl. She had freckles. How can freckles be in the past tense?

I want to keep on talking about how she looked and the way she was but I feel I need to tell you after she died I had problems for some years, floating away in conversations, yelling at groups of people, unmoored from expectations of even how you should mourn.

I want to keep telling you about how she looked and the way she was. She was tall for a girl and had dark brown hair that parted on one side and she wore glasses. Her name was Rebekah and not many people knew her. No one knows her now, except her parents and her sister and her brothers who know her through their grief. And me, through memory. Our grief was different. She wore saddle shoes and laughed at everything. Her nail polish chipped and she chewed at it. She had a nice smell and her skin felt soft. She read a lot and talked about her brothers.

I loved the way she talked to me. The way we were together. We shared things, took walks. The walks we took, through the autumn air and trees from her parents' house to the park across the land bridge. The dead leaves and our young skin.

No one knows who she is now, who she was. No one remembers the things I remember. Many people, in fact, remember her but no one remembers what I remember.

Her eyes were light and brown and she had freckles on her face and hands and back. She walked and talked and told me about her day in class and I told her about my day at work and we talked about books and movies and the bible and who knows what else.

Walking in the city. Walking to the park. Sitting on her parents' couch. We were so young! Her voice was reedy and high-pitched. She never lied to me that I know of and we went to a Dave Brubeck concert that she loved. (Dave Brubeck is dead now.) She wore a dress she bought special for this occasion and I bought a shirt and tie, too. We were very young!

We told each other that we loved each other. The night before she died we talked on the telephone, about our day. Her voice was tired from working on a paper. I was sleeping in the attic room of my friend's house. I am writing this now in the attic of my house. I am the same person I was then because I remember her dark hair, but she is somewhere else. Somewhere in the back of my throat, in the bottom of my chest, there is a heavy feeling and I know a knowledge that no one else could tell.

When her heart stopped and we all flew up to Chicago and huddled around her hospital bed crying, the room had a weight. Someone stayed there with us. How could I disbelieve in God?

She seemed to be there with us too, that feeling in the bottom of the back of our minds. No one would deny knowing this because to speak it is absurd, nothing represented it in experience except what would be gestured, hinted in the moment shared with others in that room. Wandering the halls, standing in line at the hospital cafeteria. You feel it too? There was nothing to say.

The rest of the world seemed flat, drab. Her hair was dark brown and shoulder-length and parted on the side. Her chin was strong and her eyes were a little asymmetrical. She touched my hair and my hand and face but now there is a corner of the self where I know. Her soul knows better now and mine is learning, slowly.

What light exists between us does not break over any object you could see. It does not share a gradation of color or shape. We see in the present with minds untouched by circumstance, our souls careful in motion with the knowledge. I can't tell you anything except that her hair was brown and glinted in the lamplight and the street was wet and we sat on the steps of the church doorway and held hands listening to vespers.





The only thing I will say about "Vespers" is that it recalls true events, and this is the only thing I have ever published about it.