Octavian Love Letters

Wallace Prize First Place Fiction
Aube_Rey2
Photo by Aube Rey Lescure.

Hail. Everybody hail Augustus. Augustus, who didn’t need glasses; Augustus, my friend. Augustus and I haven’t spoken in ten years, and he is not missing.

 *

Augustus was all this and he was no dream.  I saw him, was with him.

Augustus, does he notice me? Something dark rustles and shakes the bushes. We don’t talk. It is — watching — us. We both know it’s out there, but Augustus just lies back with his arms at his sides, looking up at the sky. He and I are sitting on the Upper Field, where we had gym, next to the auditorium. It is night, though, and we are alone. The ground is wet so I’m sitting up, but Augustus is lying on his back with his arms at his sides.

I say, Something is out there, right? … Something is there, I mean. Auggie? We should either go out there or leave.

Augustus?

He turns his head to me for a moment, then back, and it suddenly dawns on me that he’s quiet because he’s nervous.

He holds his thumb and forefinger up, and pinches them close. So close. So close to what? The sky? He starts waving them around, his thin pincers, and then waves goodbye with his whole hand. Good-bye. Good-bye to what, Auggie? The sky? I look up and I see what he’s actually doing — he’s handling the stars, rearranging them. An expanse lies right above him that’s completely rubbed clean. Hundreds of thousands of miles across, infinitely in, Augustus wiped the natural lights to the side like a pastry crust. One by one he drags them inside the frame again. I can see tiny squares first. Then little triangles attach, which makes them trapezoids for a moment, then octagons. Eight octagons, each part of three larger polygons, but when I go back to look for a moment at the little squares, I can’t find them.

When he finishes, Augustus stands and traces the shapes with his forefinger, as if they were Braille — as if he could read Braille, and the story he were tracing were just breaking his heart. He looks back down at the wet grass, and up again at the stars. Then at me, and then down once more to the wet grass. He bends his knees, pauses for a moment to prepare, and finally shoots like a cricket up into the sky. Faster and faster, farther and farther, he flies until he’s almost as small as a star himself, the fire of ignition trailing behind him. He goes around tracing the shape in flight the way he had just done with his finger.

I stand up and yell Wait! Auggie! Hold on — I’m coming! I spread my arms out and try to push off the ground — Wait! — but nothing. I jump and tumble back onto the grass, where I feel again a rustle in the trees that face the street. This can’t be real, I think, of course! Augustus would never leave me here.

Wake up. I slam the ground and feel it reverberate in my hands. Wake up! Pounding now with my fists: WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!

 *

Augustus came in like the hiccups. The teacher, Ms. Blaire, had her hand on his back and said, This is Augustus. Everyone say hi. He’s going to be joining our 1B class, okay?

And then, all in toy voices: Hiiiii Auuguuustuuus.

Augustus you sit down right here next to Archie, okay?

Okay.

Augustus this is Archie. Archie this is Augustus.

Hi Augustus.

 *

Augustus had green eyes and didn’t talk much, usually. I had an icepack that kept my lunch cold. It was either peanut butter and jelly or turkey, but I didn’t like either since the turkey made everything smell and the bread of the PB & J got too soggy, as soggy as the note from my mother, with the ink bleeding back onto the sandwiches:

HI BABY BOY.

HOPE YOU’RE HAVING A GOOD DAY AT SCHOOL.

XOXO MOM

I don’t remember whether I liked school or not then. Not until Augustus and I became friends for sure, but I guess that’s when you start liking and not liking things anyway. That was much later: We started trading lunches when I was seven.

 *

Augustus hated to lose and used to cry during gym. He would build things in homeroom, and wouldn’t talk much except for when he extended his greasy paper bag towards me, thankfully, at lunchtime; class didn’t interest him, but he liked to compete. The only thing he liked more than winning was the sports themselves: how they looked, how they worked, and how it felt to know how to win and to do it.  He was always picked first because he was very athletic looking, despite his silence. He would get red running back and forth, and he would get angry. He played physically, but his team still never won. When I said anything, which was not often, I would say, Augustus, it was everyone, not just you. You couldn’t have done anything — how could it be your fault? But he would cry. Everyone would run around, squeal, and giggle, and in the middle of the Upper Field, there would be Augustus hysterical, just crying his eyes out because the green team was losing at soccer. The green team was actively, almost aggressively bad at handball because the gym teacher knew he was good and made his team bad so it would be even. He was never even supposed to win! Augustus!

 *

Augustus lived on a street with no other buildings, just his. It had red jutting bricks and wooden windows and a fence that stretched on either side to the corners of the streets. Splotches of yellow and purple paper flowers came up from out of cracks in the gray sidewalk like they were blossoming, but they had always been there, even in March. The lot behind had tires and glass and grass and purple and yellow flowers and other things, all spread evenly across the block, fenced in by wooden signs like the windows, saying “PRIVATE” and “NO TRASH.” We didn’t usually walk past his house to get to my house. When we did I said, We could stay here?

And he said, No, you wouldn’t like it.

Do you like it, though?

No.

But he liked me so he let me come with him. Augustus lived on the third floor, the top floor. Inside was darker than outside, even though it was dusk. There was nothing really. A rug. A boy older than us was sleeping against the wall, and his sister sat on the chair. There was a T.V. giving off a weak blue light to the rest of the room and the kitchen also was small, dark, and full.

Hi Auggie.

Hi Judy. This is Archie, my friend.

Hi Archie.

Hey Judy.

Would you like to sit?

No, thanks, I’m ok.

That’s my brother, Marcus.

Augustus said that he loved his siblings, but the rug was his favorite part of the apartment. It was an oriental rug. Its exterior was constant, complicated, contained within itself. Your eyes could glaze over all the little curves and lilts, and if you had years you couldn’t find all the shapes inside. To enter the design of the rug, to really get into it, you had to not know what you were looking for, and get lost. If you were looking for rectangles you could find four of them, and six triangles, all organized into two tilted squares, but you would miss everything octagonal, and you would miss the fish swimming in the veins of the shapes and you wouldn’t have to deal with the stains. You said it works (but not as well) with text on the page, and that you would look at the big books even before you could read so well.

 *

Augustus would smile when I talked about other people. I started with our teacher, Ms. Bleckner — eighth grade. She was small and had one leg shorter than the other. A gigantic ass. And I said to Augustus, Aren’t ugly people supposed to be nice? And he looked at me wanting to disapprove but when he caught my eyes we both broke. He was mean only through me. No, I’m not trying to be mean, I said. But aren’t people who aren’t physically attractive supposed to be attractive in other ways?

You’re a dick.

I just mean like, why is she so fucking mean all the time? Like I do the readings. And I don’t mess around in class. But when she sees me in the hall she says hi ironically. And I’m like, What? Do you not mean Hello? Are you making fun of me by saying hi?

What does she say?

She just says hi. But, no, she says it shitty. And it’s supposed to be funny or, like, cool or something. Does she not say hi to you?

I … I don’t know, I guess.

Exactly. Next time you guys are gossiping, tell her she’s hurting my feelings.

 *

Augustus was really very attractive. He had grown out of his boy body before the rest of us and looked like a statue. A colt, a lion, Adonis. Very angular.  The way people looked at him you could tell. And it’s the only reason he ended up not being thought of as strange. People looked at him, and when he didn’t engage they thought that he was just being cool. I hope I didn’t think that too, but I can’t remember. I would say, Augustus, what about Sarah or Sara?

No, he’d say. Neither of them.

I’d say, You don’t think they’re cute.

They are definitely cute.

So then why don’t you try for one of them?

Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.

Augustus and me, and Sarah and Sara were at my house once in tenth grade, in the backyard. It was probably three o’clock, gray out and all of us sitting on the wet, black trampoline. We sat around the edges, and they both sat next to Augustus. We were talking about 9/11, and Augustus said that he didn’t remember anything from that day. I said he did remember that day and that he was a liar. Sarah said that she doesn’t remember anything before 2004, and that she only remembers things after that because when she was 12 she was riding in a car with her dad and brother and one of them said, It’s such a nice day out.

So she replied, Yeah, really nice. And to think in fifteen years we won’t remember any of this.

Her dad and brother looked confused. Then, laughing her brother said, What?

What?

Why won’t we remember any of this?

Yeah, Sarah, are you saying you’re going to murder us?

What? No, I just mean, I don’t remember stuff from ten years ago, even important stuff. So why would I remember this?

Augustus and Sara laughed, and Sarah got mad because she hadn’t found the humor in it yet, Sara said. Or maybe she just doesn’t understand why they were laughing. That’s when she took me inside.

I remember Sarah’s bra was blue and thick with laces and that her skin was darker that mine. I remember her breath was particular. I looked out the window onto the wet trampoline and saw Augustus smiling, really smiling back at me like he knew exactly what she had just said. She had asked me to pull her hair and asked me to be tough. That’s when I started laughing. When she left upset (crying?), we both when out to the trampoline, but she got there first and said Sara we have to go.

Uh … no … just … Go back inside.

No, I mean it — we’re leaving. But Sarah had lost Sara’s attention; so she started screaming, LET’S GO … PLEASE, PLEASE LET’S GO … LET’S GO! YOU’RE BEING SO MEAN, PLEASE!

Nothing.

FINE. I’M CALLING MY FUCKING MOM. THANKS A LOT.

I waited with her at the end of my driveway in silence. Maybe I tried to say sorry or something.

When she got back in the car, they were still on the trampoline.

I paused.

I climbed up because nobody told me not to. I stripped because I was alone in my clothes. I kissed Sara because she caught my stare and didn’t let go of it until I fought or flew. I kissed Augustus because I wanted to, but we never talked about it. I didn’t feel natural or bad, and I realized that I had wanted to only when I did it. Augustus’s jaw was very strong, and it made my jaw submit. Augustus ground his teeth. Augustus looked angry. I talked in his ear because that’s where my mouth was, and I kept going because it made him feel good. It was finally not cold anymore. When we were finished, Sara was gone, and we worried about what exactly had made her angry. I remember it wasn’t cold even when it got dark.

 *

Augustus and I were alone in the library a lot of the time at school. Augustus and I switched clothes to see if anyone would notice. We kissed upstairs in the library to see if anyone would notice. Who could tell that when we were alone, the boy I looked at was the boy I loved; and I the boy who followed, the boy who watched. Sara had seen the first time but she acted like she didn’t know. She would see us together and wave. She neutralized us with that. Augustus did the same thing with everyone, especially with my mom. But I never found out who really noticed or knew. Probably some of the guys on his basketball team did; he liked them the most.

 *

Augustus’ father died when he was forty and his youngest, Augustus, was four. His father wore ties and sweated much of the time. He took him to basketball games and got mustard on his burger and shirt. He practiced law and played the trumpet for Augustus, who, unlike his siblings, loved it at night and found it easy to sleep to. He loved his wife; his wife loved him; It wasn’t easy for a minute, his mother would say his father said. He taught Augustus to love the West and even the Bronx he was born in. He took Augustus on his weekend runs and one Sunday, dropped on the sidewalk. Augustus tried to lift him and got tears on his sweat-darkened shirt. Augustus’ mother didn’t blame him. Augustus’ mother didn’t blame him — as if she even could, but he did break her heart. She really didn’t like to talk about it, and neither did Augustus. There isn’t much to say about that.

 *

Augustus slept over many nights then because who was going to stop him? My mom? His mom? The only time our mothers talked was when Ms. Weller, of classroom 3W, told my mom we were switching lunches. My mom said, Augustus has his own lunch. I make that lunch for you every morning, with a note and everything, Archie. That you would just give it away like that really hurts my feelings.

I’m sorry mom I just didn’t think it was that big a deal. And Augustus really likes them.

Oh well I guess it’s too bad that I’m your mom, huh, and not Augustus’ mom.

I like your lunches, mom. I’m sorry.

It’s fine I really don’t care one way or another, Archie, but you’re going to start buying your lunches at school.

The next day Augustus gave me his lunch, and I said your mom wasn’t mad?

Mad about what?

That Ms. Weller told them we’re switching.

Oh, no, My mom didn’t say anything about that.

But the next day you said that my mom had called your mom and that she thought I was trying to be nice to you because my lunch was better than your lunch and that your lunch wouldn’t cut it for either of us. She would never say it, but she thought that you were beneath me, and that my lunch was pity. She thought you wouldn’t have ever understood that, but she thought that I did and I was being condescending. I asked you if that was true and you say it could have been. It ended up not mattering because she wasn’t around much.

 *

Augustus insisted on having me around. I could always be social. I know that people generally like themselves. My mother liked herself. It was almost like a game: how close could I get the imitation without giving it away to the one I was imitating. As I got older and better at it, I did it to my mom (my tour de force) for Augustus if we were all having dinner together or something. I was really good at it with her, and as Augustus said, It’s like two mirrors facing each other since the conversation isn’t really about anything and no one cares. Both of you were just trying to stop talking but everything you said make the other person say something, and then the first one responded and it just kept going like that.

People couldn’t do that with Augustus, you couldn’t mirror him because he could, well, first, he could tell, and he would just plainly ask you to stop. But it would also be impossible, even if he wanted to see you try, because he was too honest and silent and inarticulate in his actions. He did things without agenda or joy or anger or sadness. I don’t know what that makes him — a cave? The sun?

But he liked having me around, just as I liked being around, and when other people wanted to be with him they knew they were going to be with us. Most of the time, we liked to be alone, though. We would sit in my backyard and eat dinner we had cooked for ourselves (tacos usually, often breaded chicken). We would go inside to watch TV or play games. I liked to compete with Augustus because I liked to watch him win, really earn it and win, and to watch him try at something. That said, he did take it quite seriously; we couldn’t play that much because it drained him. We would only have sex after we had played something, usually a video game so we weren’t tired.

In school I knew Sara told Sarah, but after that I’m really not sure. What’s more, I’m not sure who, if they found out, would care. It might make them feel privileged or left out, either would make them uncomfortable. No one would get it, and no one would really be happy or scared for us. They would just want to know, I’d bet. I would want to know.

 *

Augustus had a cold in senior year. He couldn’t sleep so I didn’t sleep, and I sang him a song while he was coughing under the bed covers. He said, Stop, how am I supposed to sleep if you’re singing to me?

I said, I was just doing it to try to make you feel better.

I’m not saying it’s not nice, I’m saying it isn’t helping.

Okay, I’m sorry for not helping.

I wasn’t asking you to apologize.

Okay, sorry for apologizing.

You’re not listening.

I’m sorry for not listening, Auggie. I’m sorry for letting you sleep off your goddamn flu in my bed.

I’m not going to apologize for asking you to stop.

I’m sorry for taking care of you and wanting you to be well and singing you a song. I’m sorry I’m not a perfect bedmate, who knows that Augustus can’t be sung to after eight p.m. I’m sorry my bed isn’t the fucking floor in front of the television and that it’s too soft and caring to sleep in.

Okay.

I’m sorry.

Okay.

I’m so sorry.

It’s okay, stop apologizing.

I’m…

It’s fine

I know I just love you.

It’s fine don’t worry about it.

Then I was silent because I had just told him I loved him, obviously. The worst part was that Augustus knew what I wanted. He knew I slipped it in and he didn’t say it back for either or both of two reasons: one, he really just didn’t love me; or two, he saw that I said it in a moment of contrition in order to make him say it back, which was true — I thought that saying it while he wanted me to forgive him would have been too obvious.

I just said, Okay. I’m going to go sleep on the floor outside.

Okay, he said, and Augustus went to sleep.

*

Augustus didn’t go to college. Augustus wanted me to leave. Augustus didn’t pick up his t-shirts from my house. Augustus still might come get them. Augustus wouldn’t notice. Augustus would want me to throw them out. Augustus wouldn’t care. Augustus? You can keep him. Augustus can cook tacos by himself. Augustus rests not even thinking of my bed. Augustus isn’t thinking of me now. Augustus thinks of Augustus sleeping. Augustus drifted. Augustus tapered. Augustus grew and shrank again. Augustus ate. Augustus yelped. Augustus snickered. Augustus slept. Augustus slept again. Augustus slept for years without rousing. Augustus is sleeping. Augustus is wheezing. Augustus misses the sound of my singing. Augustus faces the mirror and watches nothing reducing, thinning out into nothing, and nothing blocks him. Augustus grew up with a sad parent. Augustus wants to be only a sad son. Augustus likes to go bird watching. Augustus has noticed his nothing is definitely smaller. Augustus’ mother finally died, and he thought someone he knows should know. Augustus didn’t know not to. Augustus called. Augustus, I’m sorry. Augustus, I’m proud of you. Augustus, I’m so, so sorry. Augustus, you look tired. Augustus, do you want to come over?

Augustus, you are hard for me to remember. I am not able not to.

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