how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya

Who lives, who dies, who tells our stories? We are young, but no, tomorrow isn’t a promise. Each of us has reason to understand that down to her core. This is how I put us both back in the narrative. This is how I avoid the ultimate mistake — which was not the duel, but the inability to ask this question:

My Alexander. What was it like in your shoes?

We were thrown together because we had one grand and beautiful thing in common. We were neck and neck, and oh, how I wanted to wring your neck when you took it for granted. You seemed always to be in the rooms where things happened. The same rooms. The rooms where I was, or wanted to be. The chairs, specifically. The one time I leapfrogged you it was for acoustic purposes. Aesthetically the audience would peg me as the first; in truth you led, still, and I deferred, but it made me sick and sorry that year to lose the perfect solo to you. Because the best thing I had was my low register, the thing that made me the anchor of any particularly young group. I had lungs enough and the right kind of control. You had developed a wonderful upper range, inevitable since you doubled flute and piccolo. We had our strengths. We had our weaknesses. Combined, we might have been one reasonably benevolent force majeure.

If I had only learned to listen, instead of letting your pitch deafen me.

You lived your life at the same high pitch you played. I never knew why. I am still asking these questions because I don’t have enough answers. Sometimes I close my eyes at night and we’re back there, except we’re the people we could have been, if we hadn’t been teenage girls in a culture of toxic femininity. You and I find the middle in those dreams and we share it. I don’t want to displace you. I have been assuming for many years that you wanted to displace me and that’s wrong. In those dreams another reality asserts itself, one in which I can see beyond the girl who is always in the right place at the right time.

Here is what loss did to me: it made me furious. It made me cautious. It made me anxious. The more I felt slipping through my fingers, the more I gathered what was left to my chest, the more I dropped in my efforts to hoard the goodness. I could have seen you as the other side of the coin. All I saw, in my pain, was that you got to keep things I lost or never had. Which, here’s the twist, became true of me compared to you as well.

Yes, I probably stole your boyfriend. If it’s any comfort, I regretted it. I didn’t know how badly suited we were. Maybe you think I couldn’t have loved anyone, not really, and in that time and place it was true for a certain value of “anyone”. I could have loved a boy you never wanted, but someone else wanted him too, and that girl had friends who were too willing to stake him out as territory. They claimed a human being like America planting her flag on the moon. How ridiculous is that? Worse than anything we got up to.

Your boy. I couldn’t have loved him the way he wanted. He wanted someone tamer than either of us. I know you because you are my Alexander. Burr’s missing pieces lived in Hamilton and Hamilton’s in Burr. I know you would have tried and tried and if you succeeded, some part of you would have to be caged in order to keep going. I watched you dance: in crop tops, on razors’ edges. I fell out of that relationship because I couldn’t cage it. I was cold on graduation night, and he was off being social while I wanted nothing more than to lie by the fire. With him would have been grand. Without was acceptable. And if another nice boy should offer to share his warmth?

The happiest night of my life ’til then had been another cold summer night, only a year before. Was it really only a year? It really was. Home, with my cousin and our third Musketeer, and three of their friends. One for all and all for one. We crammed ourselves into a tent in Julia’s back garden, in various states of inebriation (my state was dry). Bliss for me was Seppl on one side and Julia on the other, my best girl friend and a gorgeous older boy. And all we did that night was sleep. Six of us, sardines, sharing warmth.

The best thing I could have done for you was never come back to this country. I returned with those values reinforced, that love is love is love is love and sharing warmth is innocent until proven guilty. I returned frozen in time, lost and losing more by the day.

It took years to thaw out, after.

I wasn’t the girl you left behind, when we ran into each other again. I was a woman shaped by everything you’d missed. We never really got to know each other like we should have done. I could blame it on the student time crunch, but how many hours did we waste hanging around waiting for rehearsals to begin? We could never have begun again, but we could have chosen together to place the past where it belonged.

I am ashamed of how long it has taken to say so.

Nothing you said to me beat anything That Man tried to do to us. Don’t fool yourself, if you ever did. He was in it for himself. He knew what buttons to push, who to divide in order to conquer. He led me to the edge of my morality and until I talked to other people — not just women — I didn’t know how close I’d come to falling. I wish I had cared enough to throw you a parachute, in case you were on that edge too. I wish I hadn’t let him open the old wounds, spewing pus that reeked of humiliation.

(You won’t be pretty until I say you are. You won’t be a woman until I approve of you. Go on, take what everyone else says you shouldn’t have. Where’s the harm?)

(Your wife, I said, when I found the ‘nads. Unless she says yes, then I’m saying no.)

And then we were both gone.

I graduated. I went to work. The world knows the rest. I fell in love, I learned how monogamous I really am, I learned how to lose without losing myself. I lived despite all the odds against.

Once I asked Allison about you and we both had to admit how little we understood.

I am listening now to that grand and beautiful thing. What I fought to become? I will never be good in the same way again. I switched instruments. My back screams at the slightest provocation; if I put in the hours I need to regain my old strength and proficiency, I’ll pay. So I acknowledge that chapter of my life as done. Someday I will give away my flute, when I feel the pull to do it. Someone’s going to blow us all away. What if my present ensures her future?

I need only my lungs, a tune, some words. No words, sometimes. It’s not a loss. It’s a change.

I still find the harmonies.

I am still finding the harmonies.

If you ever read this, I am waiting in the wings for you. We deserved better than we got. I want you to have better than I gave. How irrational to bear a grudge so long, especially since I misbehaved toward you too. Whatever slights I perceived, they are no worse than anything I did to you. I am like other girls. I am like you. And I will not hold myself above you or below you a minute longer.

yr. obedient servant
A. Burr

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