Remembering Elysium

by Heather Burt

March 10/01

Dear Robert,
            It’s an auspicious-looking date, wouldn’t you say? Palindromic — is that a word? I only wish it felt auspicious. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so many drizzly, cloudy days on end. I prefer to stay inside, where at least the walls are yellow and blue, because outside, everything is grey. The sky, the streets, the buildings . . . I swear, even the trees and the grass are taking on a greyish hue. I suppose things are just as grey in that Glasgow suburb of yours, but somehow I imagine the oldness of the place giving it a warmth that’s lacking here. You can let me know if I’m suffering from “grass is greener” syndrome. At any rate, I must confess that greyness isn’t my main reason for staying inside these days. I’ve been under the weather, and the mere thought of moving from the sofa to the kitchen is enough to exhaust me. (Don’t worry, though. Please. I’m fine.) It started off as a rare strain of the flu that took a turn for the worse. They hospitalized me for three days, due to possible complications, and I swore that if anyone said anything about my not being as young as I used to, I would rip the IV out of my arm and bolt.
            Christ, Robert, how did you and I end up being as old as our parents?? (I should say my parents, because, really, what were yours the summer we spent together? Forty??) It puts me in mind of poor old J.A. Prufrock. “I grow old, I grow old / I shall wear my trousers rolled / Do I dare to eat a peach?” (or something like that). Oh, but don’t worry about me. Please don’t. These are just regular blues (or should I say “greys”?). I’m not falling into that dark pit again. The fact that I can get up the courage to write to you is proof of that.
            But back to my recent illness . . . The doctor said I could go back to work next week, provided I took it easy (he’s obviously never had to run a posh secondary school before — or any school, for that matter). But you know what, Robert? I have a good five years’ worth of sick leave saved up. I’ve never used it. Not a day! What have I been thinking?! That the whole damn place would fall apart without me? Anyway, they’ve got a spunky young fellow filling in, and I dare say (to use your expression) he’s doing a better job than I was. Spring vacation is coming up at the end of March, and, well, dammit, I just decided I would stay away until then. Go back when the flowers are up and the sun is rising before I do. That is, if they want me. You never know.
            But can you guess what I’ve really been thinking about, Robert? Pining for? Aching for?
            Australia. The Outback.
            I think that visiting your family while your father was working out there is the smartest thing I’ve ever done. (Yes, I admit, it was my mother’s idea, but I didn’t have to go along with it, did I?) It was like being born again, like seeing everything clearly for the first time. I looked out my window this morning at this dour, grey, pissy excuse for a day, and I remembered our first morning on Kilmarnock Station — coming out of my tent and being completely and utterly consumed by the beauty of the place. That dry, dry red earth, the tree trunks like bones, the slow, confident bluing of the sky . . . I was twenty-one, and never in my short life had I experienced passion like that. I didn’t tell you about it, of course. You were seventeen and I had no idea yet just how well you would have understood. But we did share our excitement about the kangaroos, I remember. Later that day, we were riding on the combi van — ON IT, Robert! Have you ever done that since?! — and suddenly, not too far in the distance, were those three giant red kangaroos, racing us it seemed. My God, the things really did exist! They weren’t just fantasy creatures you saw on the nature programs. And how gloriously and freely they bounded! They were extraordinary! I remember you stood up on the van and yelled “cooee!” like an Aussie, the wind billowing your shirt like a sail, blowing your long hippy hair out behind you . . . until your dad told you to get down and stop being so stupid. Oh, Robert. I could have died right then and felt satisfied with my life.
            I guess I should tell you that Ray and I have gone our separate ways. (I find I can’t use the term “broke up” anymore in reference to myself. It sounds too much like something young people do.) But don’t worry. It was for the best. The most discouraging thing is knowing my friends are all feeling sorry for me, thinking this was probably poor old Sandra’s last kick at the can, and here she’s gone and blown it. They’re probably right — about it being my last kick. But so what? Aren’t there certain pleasures in life we can get enough of? Others we don’t need at all? Maybe it’s time for something different. Would you believe it, some of the young things at work think I’m a lesbian. Oh, yes! You can start to tell when such things are being said about you. I don’t mind, though. I’ve even thought it might be something to try, one of these days — assuming one can just decide a thing like that.
            Do you remember the campfires your dad made, Robert? How they roared and lit
up our little patch of that endlessly black night . . . Remember the stars? On our first night you pointed out the Southern Cross to me then laughed your head off when you realized I hadn’t known the constellations would be different down there. I think your parents must have let you have too much to drink that night, because it wasn’t that funny. Your parents were really quite hip, though, weren’t they. You may not have known this, but I lost my virginity on that trip — to the station hand, Iain — and it was your mother who supplied the condoms, saying she wasn’t about to send me back to her sister and brother-in-law in any kind of a state. I don’t remember much about Iain. He was like the land, I suppose — rugged and strong. But never mind that. Do you remember our word game, the one you and I played by the fire after your parents had gone to bed? “Word of the Day” I think it was called. Every night we each had to come up with an entry, then we’d decide who had the better word. Sometimes I’d spend the whole day deciding on a word, but yours was always better. I thought I had you with “pauciloquy.” You were impressed. But your word that night was “Elysian” — you’d found it in whatever book you were reading — and I thought it was the perfect word for the Outback.
            Teenage boys don’t read anymore, do they. It’s distressing. The girls at our sister school are only marginally better, in that they sometimes have a book in hand, but it’s sure to be something trashy and superficial. There’s not a boy at my school who would know the word Elysian. I confess I do rant at them sometimes, and I’ve acquired something of a reputation, but good God, whatever happened to seventeen-year-olds who have political arguments and write poetry?! Every week I address an auditorium full of cute hairstyles and expensive uniforms, and I feel I’m speaking to them in an archaic, lost language.
            Do you know, Robert, that I could write more about those two months in Australia than I could about my entire career? I’m quite serious. I could go on at greater length about the particular green of a eucalyptus leaf than I could about the benefits of an integrated Humanities Program. I’ve thought of going back, many times. But it wouldn’t be the same. “Australia,” really, is my youth . . . It’s you. There, I’ve said it — as much of a confession as I’m prepared to make. Well, perhaps this as well: that summer in the Outback was the one time in my life when everything seemed clear, and things were possible. You’re my only link to that, Robert.
            I haven’t thanked you for your last letter, which was a welcome reprieve during my illness. What did you mean by your suggestion at the end? I wasn’t sure how to take it. You’ll excuse me, I hope, for not responding in detail to the goings-on of Shauna and your girls, but do let them know that I send them my love. And please, don’t worry about me. The weather is going to dry up here; I feel it in my bones. Tomorrow, maybe, I’ll allow myself a trip outside and see where the wind takes me. 

This story first appeared in The Griffin (Gwynedd-Mercy College, 2005)