"Praeco diei jam sonat,
Noctis profundae pervigil,
Nocturna lux viantibus."
Once when he was little they passed by a church on their way to the synagogue and he heard the first strains of Aeterne Rerum Conditor. The male voices blended together, swelling, and he thought of sunrise, though he had no idea of knowing what the words meant. He was too young to understand why his mom was holding his hand so tightly, why all the buildings were so large. But even as they moved away from the sounds of the choir he wished he could remember exactly what sunrise sounded like. He was so desperately afraid that he'll forget.
He puts on his glasses and puts away the handkerchief he used to wipe them off. It's important that it goes back in his pocket the right way. Important the way his shirt sleeves are the right length and he knows that in the right pocket of his coat he will find his grandfather's amber medallion. He knows exactly the sound his shoes make on the airport linoleum. He knows what he's going to do before he actually does it, but as he sits in the small airplane seat he thinks that maybe he has no idea what he's doing after all.
Ukraine is unpredictable. A beautiful juxtaposition of blue and yellow until all he can see is made of fields and birch trees. He's so afraid of forgetting the moment the hot air hits his face on the train that he grips the amber tighter in his hand, feeling the warmth seep into his flesh.
It annoys him that Alex can't say his name. Annoys him because he puts such enthusiast into it, such willingness to do right by him and he gets it wrong. He can see the fascination in Alex's eyes, but it's not something he wants to focus on. He wants it to be about the past. But he should know better than to try and separate anything of this sort. He really should.
The bed in the hotel, that's what he assumes it is, is uncomfortable. There is a spring that digs into his side as he turns and he keeps looking at the door handle imagining it turn. Almost as if waiting for something. But he couldn't possibly be waiting for anything. As there is nothing to be waiting for. Maybe for somebody to come looking.
He gets up to check and the amber is still there in his pocket where he left it.
The smoke from the fire makes his eyes water but he can see the stars and the amber is there, safe in his pocket, safe in the plastic bag. He has every memory tucked away in bags. As long as he seals them well, he knows he won't lose the memory. This is what he collects but there's no way to explain that to Alex who stares at him suspiciously sideways as he falls asleep by the fire. Not to mention Alex's grandfather. He hates not being understood but he's never had that much luck with it in the States either.
He doesn't know how to explain it to Alex. Alex with his thin shoulders in the undershirt. Who must think the world of his grandfather. He doesn't know how to explain that in that small piece of amber is the life of his grandfather and also his life because things like this are connected. These things don't stand on their own.
But maybe Alex gets it. Maybe he knows, the way he looks earnestly at Jonathan. Like he wants Jonathan to understand too.
Alex pulls up by the side of the road before they make it to the city. And Jonathan wants to ask what happened with his grandfather but he knows better. The years have taught him that it's rarely necessary to prompt people to talk. But Alex doesn't say anything and Jonathan thinks it's strange. But maybe this too, like the fields, like the pure blue sky, they're all parts of the same thing. He reaches for the plastic bag but remembers that he can't pack away sky. Can't pin it down on a board. For the first time since coming, since the death of his grandmother, he feels genuine regret.
Alex reads his thoughts. "But what about the things you cannot put away into your bag, Jonfen," he says. "What about this. What do I remember my grandfather with? What if I forget too?" And Jonathan doesn't know what to say to this. Doesn't know how to explain that Alex's grandfather never forgot and that Alex won't. That sometimes the bags are put away and pinned to the wall and people don't look at them, but they're there. He doesn't know how to explain it all to Alex.
Alex kisses him. It's strange, but he feels Alex catch his hand even as he reaches for the plastic bag. I don't want to forget this. I don't want to forget this. Over and over. Because a kiss can only last so long, the ride can only last so long but memories last forever inside the people who keep them and the people who find them and claim them as their own. Jonathan knows all about it as he's claimed pieces of other people before, tucked away safely in plastic. Pinned on a wall.
He wants to laugh or cry but the car is small and Sammie Davis Jr. Jr. is breathing into his ear as Alex sticks a tongue inside his mouth. "This is strange," he says afterwards. Alex tells him it's how they say goodbye.
Later when he gets off the plane. Later when he doesn't look for familiar faces and sees. When the small pieces of his life start sliding slowly together, he knows that Alex understands. That there isn't one way to make a whole. That there are many different ways and he has found his and that maybe Alex will find his own. He reads Alex's letter to him and he remembers.