The peace you settle upon.

It’s any evening on any day, and the weather is doing what it will. Close your eyes and listen. Can you hear how still it is? And then, through the stillness, can you hear the whole world? The bugs moving through the grass, the night birds flying from nest to tree to ground to holes in aluminum siding, the slow tires on a wet road, or the slow tires on a road parched for weeks by sun and more sun?

Can you hear someone breathing in the next room, the next house, the next town over? Can you hear your own blood moving sluggish and sleepy through your body’s vessels?

I can.

I do this all the time when there’s too much in my life, too much in my head, too much in the world. I turn everything off so there is no hum of electricity in the air, in the room, and I close my eyes and I wait for the silence to come — not my thoughts, yet — just silence, just the heavy air and the world and me.

It doesn’t happen right away — you have to be patient and wait for it — but then it comes, creeping in like cold air under blankets in the middle of the night, until it occupies your whole body, and everything is still. I try not to breathe then, because it’s a brief moment, a click, before it reverses and the little things you don’t notice start to come in under the blankets, too.

But that one, single moment of total and utter calm — it’s a moment that changes me every time it happens. It’s what I imagine people mean when they say they’ve found God.

My gods have always been different from most people’s, though. If you can’t quite follow what I meant just now, don’t worry. It’s not important. It’s important for you to know only this: if you’ve never taken the time to stop the world and focus on a single speck of dust (God, that moment of silence, that thing) — you aren’t alive yet. If you’ve never sat on a dock and watched the water long enough to see a fish jump — really see him jump, not just his splash — then you’re moving too fast.

What I’m talking about is slowing down. What I’m talking about is reflection. What I’m talking about is being alone.

There’s this guy that I hurt once. Well, I’m sure I’ve hurt a lot of people, but this guy was special. This was years ago, and something most people would say I ought to just let go of, forgive myself for, and forget about.

But this guy, he was different. He loved me and I hurt him. Sure, that’s not new. That’s happened to all of us. But I’m telling you this one was different. Here’s what happened:

It was October, and I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. I cried, because I loved him — I realized that as I was telling him that I didn’t, but you can’t take back something like that. You can’t say “I don’t love you anymore” and then say, “Wait, I mean, yes I do, but I still don’t want to be with you.” That’s what you call cruel.

So I just cried because I was young, and it was the first time I’d done something like that. I could just feel pieces of him crumble and knew it was my fault. Do you know what he did? He put his hands on my shoulders — in a sort of comforting gesture that wasn’t a hug because he knew I couldn’t handle a hug — and he told me it was okay. He looked me in the eyes and he said it was okay.

It was okay.

“Okay” was a word I couldn’t get my mouth around for weeks. “Okay” didn’t make sense to me. How could it be okay? How come he didn’t hate me? Was he playing games, and would he turn on me later? Waves of guilt came over me.

What had I done to him? How could I? Why had I? I saw him again at Thanksgiving, a month later. I saw him again and nothing felt right — nothing felt right but him. He was calm and he was quiet. I was the one racing, fumbling with words. When I left, we hugged — and oh, that hug. That hug that I wanted to last for hours, that hug that I still remember when I close my eyes.

That Thanksgiving was the first time I really stopped the world and looked in, and listened. I listened to my blood move, and I listened to the leaves rustling outside my window, and I listened to bugs in the walls and the down in my comforter.

Everything grew still. I couldn’t hear anything at all and then it began. The real noises, the ones you don’t know are there. The paint chipping in the bathroom. The dirt settling under the foundation of the house. The stars blinking out as dawn crept up over the crest of trees. And the realization of Okay.

Okay meant not that he was okay, because he was devastated. He meant to tell me that I was going to be okay, that I had crushed a part of him, but that I would survive it. I would survive the guilt of it, the freedom of it, the joy of it, and the sorrow of it. Okay was sunrise on a rainy dawn when the sun can’t shine, but there it is anyway, behind those clouds. Okay was the silence he led me to find.

We’re still friends, all these years later, all these silences later. We’re friends of the kind that can not speak for months, years almost, and yet pick up again and enjoy each other. We still make each other laugh, and we still make each other think.

We never talk about what happened, how I killed a piece of him and walked away, and how he has always been the one reaching out, how he has to be the one because I still feel guilty, and I still haven’t forgiven myself for the pain I caused him.

But it’s okay because he forgave me, and he still constantly does. He forgave me the minute it happened, and he never stopped forgiving me, and that makes all the difference in the world. I’ll never forget the hug that Thanksgiving, and I’ll never forget meeting his eyes, and hearing it’s okay.

And in the silences I’ve created around myself in the past months, in the many moments that I’ve leaned back in broken-backed chairs, or against brick walls — in all the cigarettes I’ve smoked knowing I shouldn’t, and in all the stars and phases of moon that I’ve looked up to for answers to burning questions, the one thing I know is that it’s all okay.

In the end, it’s about saying that to someone who hurt you, to someone you love, to someone you know is suffering — maybe more than you, with a kind of guilt they can’t shake. Because you know, you always know, that questions like that don’t have answers of right and wrong, black and ghostwhite.

You know that silence is gray, and not all lines are straight, and that if you believe gray is true and if you don’t need definitions, if you’re big enough, you can put your hands on someone’s shoulders and look them in the eye.

And in the dead silence of a moment like that, there’s an echo — it’s my friend’s voice, and he’s whispering “Okay.”

Article © 2002 by Caryn Ellis