We turned to each other when we heard the decree. You are free. And freedom felt like lead ’round my ankles and I asked you if this was what you wanted and you shrugged and said it was what needed to be. We did not know that we were late, that we could have ceased work on this borrowed land long ago. We could have earned something for each other. All this time. All this time, we should have been holding each other without punishing ourselves, for wanting what we could not have, for promising what we could not give; life need not have looked this way. And the sky was full of those rolling clouds you love but you said, Freedom don’t make me feel no closer to ’em, and I knew what you meant and I know who you are and I hated what was happening.
How long and how low pain lingers when they take away the tethers; you can see where they were forever. The gashes ooze and they fester and it is no real comfort for fresh air to hit them. There is no true salve for what lies beneath.
I tell you that I need a drink, and you walk with me to get one. We pass two blocks of rowhomes — at least one where the lawn is overrun with weeds and you point to the dandelions and tell me you always believed they were flowers. This is how it feels to be free: miles between us with shoulders almost touching, wanting to reach for your hand, to run my thumbs over your bitten-down nail beds, to feel your skin again and to claim it, to realize that makes me no better than a slaver, restraining myself. You can do what you want now, say what comforts you to whomever you want, and I get to pretend that I don’t wish that person were me. I am so bad at pretending — and so weak, for not wanting to be free. At the corner, you cross against the traffic; I don’t follow you. A car darts between our adjacent curbs. Nothing was coming, you call across to me. We are facing each other, effacing each other, and I already know I will miss feeling tethered to you. There is something ancestral in this distance, something the crow knows, as he circles overhead. Something we will soon forget.
It is Juneteenth, and everyone is reveling o’er belated liberation.The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes. We all know what it means to overstay, to read into a broken bond an invitation of nearness. Freedom may be our noble and God-given right but first it will feel like the radical, paralyzingly jolt of too much choice. What I wanted most when we were first free was that small and muddied hut I shared with you, that borrowed time and that bottle of wine you uncorked when it was over. What I wanted was the attention we could give when we had nowhere else to go.
Liberation is lonely for the once-loved. I have longed for your letters, now that we are free to write them. But we are not where or who we were. Everything I send you returns to me unopened. I have heard you’ve gone off to another war, but you did not need to leave to be a warrior.
I am drinking Shiraz from the bottle. You have been gone for years, for generations. This is what freedom has become: laughing and turning my face to the rain, finding that you are in these clouds. You have reached them after all, and you are giving me a taste of what they hold.