this is old and it’s sad and it needs to be properly laid to rest, because that isn’t how the story ended, just how it unraveled.
I remember a time—ten years ago—that I placed my hand against cold airport glass and held my breath. I held it and held it, because I had not seen you in months, and in the course of the past year, I had learned I knew nothing of what “brokenhearted” meant.
I was eighteen, and you were seventeen, and we’d only been together for a year and a half. Paltry, by adult standards; even less valid considering we’d only spent six of those months in person. But you’d found me, and I’d found you, and we gave each other something to fight for. I’d come from a doomed line of alcoholics, set and determined to fail. Bright, my teachers said, but burning out, a candle disintegrating at both ends. I was violent and troublesome; you, brilliant but painfully sad. Tensions from your parents’ divorce had bounced you around all your life, and when your mother moved out west, your father’s house had been the only option. You couldn’t stay there, though, not with the way the two of you fought, and so your grandmother relented and let you come home.
We’d had six months. September to February, and we were sure we had something more than love. You convinced me to put down the bottle and pick up a pen, and I got you to smile again. We drew closer and closer, but there was always a sword dangling over our heads. It crashed down that March, when your mother took you back west.
Now it was the end of November and I was watching a darkening New Mexico sky, my too-short hair failing to warm my ears. It had grown so long before you left, a wild auburn brown you loved tangling in your fingers. Gone, now, like everything else. Sadness had shorn my hair and made me too skinny, back to bad habits that made me terrified to look for you, uncertain of what I should say. Our conversations had been interrupted these past seven months. Weeks of silence would go by, sometimes more, and I’d grown accustomed to the uncertainty that I’d ever get to talk to you again. I almost didn’t believe I’d see you now, but your arms found me, pulled me close as you whispered, “Hey, you.”
We only had three days. We spent the better part of them crying, always crying, never able to stop because this wasn’t a reprieve. There was no convincing you, because there was nowhere else for you to go. You were trapped there with no way home, and you’d lost the bravery to come with me. At the end of those three days, I would have to leave you there, silent and lonely under an endlessly starry New Mexico sky.
When I flew back to South Carolina, I’d have to face the world I could no longer stand: stolen booze bottles hidden under my bed, in my book bag, a cluttered sea of empty cigarette packs whispering in the floorboards as I hunted meaning every night, stalking the reason why I was still here.
When it was time for me to go, you finally understood. Your hand grasped mine, clutching. Your eyes welled up, and I ripped my hand away and ran. Teeth clenched, tears streaking down my face as I fled across the airport, because I knew you’d finally realized it, too.
You and I were never going to see each other again.
I came home. I stared up at the hazy Carolina sky, with its soft stars and rolling hills, its trees and familiar places that stung and burned. Home twined around my insides like a poisonous thing, and I told myself, I don’t care.
I drove home to a haunted house. No one was waiting for me. Mom was, as always, hidden away upstairs, so I set down my bags and turned out the lights. Found what I needed from the liquor cabinet, sat down at the kitchen table. Put my head down, and drank myself under just like that—not crying, just contemplating how empty it all was.
At eighteen, who cared if I followed in my parents’ footsteps? What was there to look forward to? My mother was drinking herself to death upstairs, and my father was never home. My siblings had already moved on, and in a few months, my friends would, too. They’d watched me sink like this, drowning slowly as the months passed. Home had become as hollow as my insides, and while the vodka burned, it never made me full. My friends had done their best, but they couldn’t stop me. The only person who ever had was you.
When you’d first found me, you’d looked so hauntingly familiar. So much like the dead woman I’d chased in my nightmares since childhood, with your green eyes and dark hair. Like her, you were so beautiful, so unconditionally kind. I’d gone feral after she died, a rough and savage thing, but I didn’t scare you. You’d pressed your hand into my chest anyway, wrapped your fingers around my heart. Smiled and said, I’ll take care of this for you. And then you moved a thousand miles away, forgetting about the heart in your pocket, and I stopped caring about getting it back.
I didn’t need it.
I’d never planned to make it past eighteen anyway.
The funny thing about being broken is that people always try to fix you.
Icy December, and I slipped and fell. Someone’s back deck at a party, and it was late, and I was alone. Everyone was inside, and me, I just laid there, laid out, staring at the sky. I lit another cigarette and laughed at myself, and footsteps crunched up behind me. Some blond guy came into view. He looked down at me, one pale brow cocked, and I thought, I know you.
“Need some help there?”
He had no idea what he was asking.
I had no heart. I had nothing to give. You were never coming home, and I wasn’t planning on living another year, but here was a person who made me smile when I didn’t want to. Weeks went by, and soon enough we were friends. Endless silence from you, while he and I got coffee and smoked too many cigarettes. He’d muss my hair, grinning, but we were just friends. Just friends, till another party, till the night he leaned in and whispered, “I’m gonna get so drunk I won’t remember anything,” and I knew exactly what he meant.
I looked at him, and even though you didn’t look the same—even though your eyes were green instead of blue, your hair dark where his was pale, you thin and frail where he towered over me—there was something so familiar about him that it hurt. That same rare smile, that easy way of finishing my sentences before I could even get the thought out. We would talk until we fell asleep, and I’d wake with the sound of soft breathing in my ear.
I didn’t have a heart. I loved him anyway.
I couldn’t remember you, sitting in front of me, cupping your hands around my cheeks as I cried in the middle of a desert. I couldn’t remember the way you’d curled warm and safe around me, the one safe thing I’d ever had in my life. I didn’t have you anymore, and I’d never have you again. You were never going to come back to me, no matter what I did.
I’d spent too many nights sitting up drunk and bleary-eyed, dialing a number that rang and rang, disconnected. Months without solace, dreaming the funeral dream, where I chased you over and over again. You, transposed over a dead woman, and me, so small, unable to stop you from leaving, never fast enough to catch your hand. Me, voiceless but screaming, wishing you’d hear me.
But the line was empty. No one was listening. I hit “End Call” and curled up in the backseat of my car, parked in a field at three in the morning, thinking to myself that there was no point in telling you.
You were already gone.
You found out anyway.
One phone call. “I only have thirty minutes.” That was the standard whenever we finally got a chance to talk. I knew it wasn’t enough time to tell you what happened, and I knew better than to get my hopes up.
You said, “I found out about him,” and I asked why you cared. If you’d known, why didn’t you try to call me? You could have found a way, but you hadn’t. The past few weeks had followed the same pattern as the past seven months for one reason.
You’d given up long before I had.
The phone hit the floor with a clatter. Violent sounds—stomping, breaking, an angry scream from somewhere across the room. I was unmoved. I didn’t flinch, because I knew that I was right, and your anger didn’t mean anything. None of it made a difference.
This conversation had been inevitable from the start.
Another clatter, the crackle of the coil, bunching in your hands. You, breathless, gasping and angry, saying, “What if I came back?”
You didn’t mean that. I knew you didn’t. In the year you’d been gone, you’d said those words a dozen times, but it never amounted to anything. More than a thousand miles had grown between us. I couldn’t cross them and you never would, so I told you the truth: I didn’t believe you.
“Three days,” you said. “I have a school trip. A little money. Wait for me.”
After you hung up, I sat down, stared at the phone in my hands, listening to the dial tone longer than I can remember, unable to believe you’d ever prove me wrong.
On the fourth day, you did.
Three days passed without word. I’d called, sure you were just bluffing, that you’d answer and I could give up. But the phone was disconnected like always. For three days, I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I cried, and I told my blue-eyed boy that I didn’t know what I was going to do. That if you came back, I didn’t know what I’d do, that I didn’t want to hurt anyone, but you weren’t giving me much of a choice.
He came and sat with me on those sleepless nights. Sitting on the back of his car, smoking cigarettes. Riding through black, endless countryside and counting stars in the field, talking about everything and nothing, his hand warm and patient in mine.
He said, “I don’t care what you do, as long as you smile again.”
Three days passed. You weren’t picking up—no one knew where you were. No one knew anything. And then—
The fourth day was a Friday. I was out late, too late, staying distracted with friends. They’d promised to cheer me up, and my blue-eyed boy drove everywhere, popping in tape after tape of stupid music. I was too empty to sing along, but he held my hand anyway. Later, when we were alone, he grasped my shoulders and told me I was going to be okay.
“This isn’t going to break you,” he said. “This isn’t the end of the world.”
I didn’t really believe that, but I said I’d try, and he grasped my hand like he always did. We sat like that for a long time, till our friend John ran up, breathless and wide-eyed, telling us we were late. Twelve thirty, far past curfew, and as we piled into the car, we made our phone calls. One after another, while I stared at my phone, wondering whether I should call, too.
Who was going to answer? My father wasn’t home. My mother probably wouldn’t hear the phone ringing. But there was that small seed of doubt, so I dialed the house and waited. Two rings, and when I heard it connect, I said, “Hey, Mom—”
“Jeremy came by here.” Her voice was clear, completely sober. “I think you’d better find where he went.”
Everyone in the car knew what that word meant. And my mother, who I was so sure had given up on everything, who I was convinced I’d lose, too, she told me to come home.
“I think he went to John’s house,” she said. “Is he with you?”
I told her he was.
“Well, I think you better have Michael bring you here first,” she said. “You come get your car, and go find Jeremy. Call me when you do. I’ll stay up till I hear from you.”
One by one, we dropped everyone off. One by one, and when we stopped at John’s, I saw your car in the driveway. My eyes stung. I didn’t believe it. I stayed hunched in the passenger seat, hands clenched, terrified and angry and something like hopeful all at once.
When he pulled up to my house, I said, “I’m sorry.”
My blue-eyed boy gripped my hand one last time and smiled.
“I told you,” he said. “As long as you’re happy, I don’t mind.”
I watched him go, and I drove back to John’s. I parked next to your car, and I trudged down to the basement door, and I walked in and there you were.
I couldn’t look at you—couldn’t believe that was actually you, standing there in front of me. All that time, all those endless unanswered calls, but there you were, green-eyed and haggard. There were bruises under your eyes, and you were too thin, different from the last time I saw you. You didn’t look at me, didn’t meet my eyes. Our friends watched as I sank down in a chair. Their voices grew nervous as the three of you stood there talking, and me, I burned my way through half a pack of cigarettes. My hands shook. I was so numb I couldn’t speak. One cigarette after another, lighting one faster than I could put the other out, listening as the three of you inched closer and closer to me. The words didn’t make sense. It felt like a bomb had gone off in my head. I wanted a drink. I wanted to scream. I wanted to punch your face in, throttle you, kick a hole in the wall and burn the entire house down, and instead I grabbed your shirt.
Everything came back. Every wasted night, every promise we never kept. My fingers tightened. I clutched onto your shirt, and this horrible sound came out of me—the kind of cry you can’t keep in, the kind of cry you can’t stop—and then you and I were alone.
I couldn’t let you go, and I couldn’t stop crying, because you weren’t supposed to come back.
Eighteen, reduced to seven, a small child screaming in front of a coffin, shrieking for the person I loved most to wake up. I’d chased that woman in my nightmares since childhood, always running but never catching up. And you—my green-eyed boy, whose warmth reminded me so much of her—you disappeared into a desert the same way she disappeared into the ground. I’d been so sure I’d never see you again, but here you were. Everything I knew was wrong. The cloth of your shirt twisted in my fingers, real enough for me to rip, for tears to sink into. I’d finally, finally grabbed onto you, and everything inside me tumbled, fell over, fell apart, because things weren’t supposed to come back.
You grasped my wrists in your hands, and you said, “Look at me.”
You crouched down and looked me in the eyes and said, “I am never leaving you again.”
You didn’t ask me if I’d given up. You didn’t need to. What could either of us say? You’d driven over a thousand miles in four days, barely stopping to sleep or eat in the middle of January. You’d finally come home, and there weren’t any words for that, not for a long time.
Afterwards, I took up a post and watched you sleep, just to make sure you wouldn’t disappear. I could barely believe you were real, warm and solid, your fingers woven tightly in mine. I didn’t believe you’d stay, but you did. Ten years and more, your hand in mine, the one constant in my life that never changes.
Things do come back, sometimes.
–but that wasn’t the end of the story
–sometimes a comma becomes a semi-colon becomes a dash becomes a period, and
time becomes a loop that closes back in on itself.
I’m thirty-two and I don’t remember how to have a conversation with you, because I’ve realized I never really knew who you were. And that’s why thirty-two can’t stand the memories of sixteen. Thirty-two remembers eighteen, remembers the choking, smothering panic of losing and loss and being unable to cope. Empty text fields replaced endlessly beeping phone lines, and thirty-two doesn’t know how many words she’s deleted at this point, only that
it’s so incredibly sad to look back at that and know that this is what happens. Years upon years upon years of dreams and hopes and plans and ambitions and prayers and whispers in the dark and pleas and panicked grasping and begging and clinging, clinging pathetically, desperately, trying not to–trying to make it not hurt so much–trying to do the right thing, trying, trying
Tried, past-tense, tried, good God it doesn’t get easier, shoveling all this fill-dirt–
shoveling all this dirt over those two kids, unable to bear it, unable to bury
“I hope one day soon you won’t compare me to him anymore”
ah, but how do you get rid of it?
how do you get rid of it?
the only way I know is to write it down.
So here is where I will exorcise your ghost:
I grasped your hands in mine, and I said, “I’m sorry.”
Your face crumpled and your eyes turned glassy, because you’d given me time, we’d both given it time, but it was broken and we both knew it, and there was no way back.
And I sat down next to you, and I pulled you into my arms, and we cried, because that’s how love dies.
That’s how you say “it’s over” because love has taken its last breaths.
It’s what we did when October died and they offered us one paw print, but we needed two, and that’s what it was, that’s what it was, gasping its last breath on the table, right in front of me. Me, staring into those hollow yellow eyes with this feeling like I’d let her down, like I was the cancer that crept through her, same as the poison that wounded us, ended us, yes, that’s
We knew each other, once.
We knew each other better than anyone.
And you came back, and we stayed in the same orbit until we couldn’t, till you slingshot out of mine and I out of yours, off into separate nebulous clusters, different timelines
When I said “I’m sorry” and we both knew it was a pronouncement, not an apology, you didn’t argue. Didn’t need to. We’d stayed in step for fifteen years, married for almost six, with joint bank accounts and a mortgage and every safe predictor everyone told us ensured a safe and stable future, but they were wrong. We were wrong.
A wrong loop, and we had to close it. Had to set it right.
For weeks I ran tires over pavement and slept on rocks and couldn’t breathe and couldn’t do it, didn’t know how to do it, “I don’t want to hear that,” scrolling through old texts and listening to twenty-eight saved voicemails I’d kept for years and years, asking myself “are you really never coming back”
But I already knew–I’d known–I knew there was nothing to come back to.
What happened to those kids?
So I closed the loop.
We closed the loop.
a thing that left me breathless after sobbing violently on the linoleum of a quiet room:
a thing no one knew because I never told them:
“I can’t bury it!”
I knew I couldn’t stay.
I knew it wasn’t real.
I knew it was a lie.
“I hope one day soon you don’t–”
I do too.
I hope the day comes when I don’t
get blindsided, don’t cry, don’t crumple, fold, scrub my face and say “it’s OK, please ignore it,” don’t remember a day or a sentence or a cadence or a laugh, a joke, a life, a decade and a half unraveling and haunting and berating and stabbing, bony and unrepentant, into the softest, most vulnerable parts of me where god, when does it stop, when will it stop, when will I
when will I let go of this
I don’t need you anymore.
I don’t want you anymore.
I know this is just the same haunting as always, grief, echoes of a memory, of a life lived, a memory painting its light over things in the here and now and in the light, in the every day light of this new place where I continue learning to walk on these coltish feet–
I know I have to stare directly ahead.
I can’t listen anymore, can’t let my attention catch on a memory, stray even for a second.
Because all these hauntings have only one place they belong, and this is where I’ll trap your ghost and all the sadness that came with crying, big shiny puddles on white linoleum while I said, out loud, “I have to do this” and it wasn’t about you, it wasn’t to you, it was
A pause, a semi-colon, a dash, now, now,
to continue, to go on—
I have to close this part before I can go onto the next.
Oh, one day soon.
I know why you changed your name.
It’s why I changed mine, too.
“One day soon I hope you won’t…”
One day, maybe not soon, but that’s why I’m printing SAY YES somewhere I’ll always see it.
Yes, me too.