I lie awake in bed and reach gently for your chest. I didn’t want to wake you. I only wanted to feel the rise and fall of your ribcage. I needed to feel it before I could succumb to sleep. How many nights will I be able to reach for you like this? How many hours will I spend by your side? How many more minutes to look into your eyes?
I know there is a danger in letting myself love you this hard. I’ve become savage in my attempts to keep you safe because I no longer know if my heart beats without yours to accompany its melody. We’re a perfect harmony, aren’t we?
I ask because sometimes I think my need hits a sour note, barely audible in our beautiful symphony but there to spoil my innocence, nonetheless. I just can’t let you go.
I’m sinking, as I knew I would. I saw the signs days ago. My cracking veneer didn’t stand a chance against the force of your emotions. I knew eventually the darkness would come rushing in to pull me under with its unbreakable grip.
Even as I’m pulled deeper and deeper into the abyss, I know I’m the one to blame. I should have built a stronger hull, an impenetrable shell. I should have known your mood couldn’t withstand my worry. I should have learned when to stop trying to make you console me… But, even now, I can’t. Instead, I cling stupidly to my anchor of righteousness, as it drags me to my death.
Every day a freshly cut batch of irises appeared on the sidewalk, just at the start of a picture-perfect, white picket fence. Every day she averted her eyes as she passed. She felt guilty for doing it but it gave her the creeps. Why couldn’t Mrs. Tenlove give it a rest already? It wasn’t like this town would ever forget what happened to Iris. Flowers on the sidewalk would never bring her daughter back.
Gretchen shuddered. She was tired of the memories, tired of having to walk past the house on her way to school every day, tired of nosy people, who always wanted to know what happened. Iris had been her friend and now she was gone. The night she died was horrible. Wasn’t that enough for people? Why did they need to know the details?
She pulled her hoodie tighter around her face and trudged onward. All she had to do was not make eye contact and keep her mouth shut all day, or maybe she would glare at anyone who approached her. Either way, she wasn’t going to talk about Iris.
“Gretchen!” Gretchen cringed and tried to pretend she didn’t hear, but Mrs. Tenlove was running to catch up with her. There was no way to avoid her. She turned towards Iris’mother, stopped and waited for her to catch up.
“Gretchen, I’m so glad I caught you. I left you a few messages.” Mrs. Tenlove looked thin and worn but she smiled at Gretchen with warmth and her eyes held great concern.
Still, Gretchen reddened a little under her hoodie. She had been sending Mrs. Tenlove straight to voicemail ever since the funeral. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. She had intended to say something about being busy but it died on her lips as Mrs. Tenlove scooped her into an unexpected embrace.
“Of course it’s ok, Darling. You were Iris’ best friend. You were there with her when… ” A small whispered sob escaped her but she powered through. She pulled back from Gretchen with her hands on her shoulders, looking her squarely in the eyes. “You stayed with her. You didn’t leave her alone. I can’t tell you how much comfort that gives me.”
Gretchen nodded but she couldn’t bring herself to speak. Iris’ death had left a big hole in her life. She had no other friends, no social life, no one to tell her secrets to or laugh with. She didn’t know who she was without Iris. She missed her so much.
Mrs. Tenlove seemed to understand all of her unspoken feelings. “Oh, Honey. I miss her so much too.” It was this moment of compassion that broke Gretchen’s stoicism. All of the tears she hadn’t been able to cry rose to the surface at once. The dam broke and Gretchen collapsed in the resulting flood. Mrs Tenlove caught her and held her as she cried. “Oh, you poor girl. You poor, poor girl, ” she cooed steadily as Gretchen sobbed and sobbed.
“It was all my fault. I was the one… I wanted… I wanted to run… I… I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Gretchen pulled away from Mrs. Tenlove’s embrace. “Didn’t you hear me? It was all my fault. Iris died because of me. I talked her into running with me.”
“No.” To Gretchen’s surprise, Mrs. Tenlove didn’t look at all shocked or angry. She just looked sad. “It wasn’t your fault. She had a defect in her heart. You couldn’t have known. No one knew.”
“She… She… What?”
“She had a heart problem. It wasn’t your fault. That’s why I’ve been trying to call you… Well, that and I wanted you to have some of her things. Gretchen… Hey. Look at me. It wasn’t your fault. Sometimes things just happen.” Tears were falling down her cheeks now but she didn’t bother to wipe them. Gretchen was glad because she was still crying too and couldn’t stop. But there was something else… something had changed. She wasn’t angry anymore. She was just sad.
“Come with me to the house. I have some things for you.”
“I’m supposed to go to school.”
“We’ll call your mother and I’ll give you a ride if she wants you to go but I have a feeling you could use a break from everyone.”
Gretchen nodded. She really could. She allowed Mrs. Tenlove to steer her toward the house where Iris had lived. Perhaps they could find some comfort in each other’s company today.
She felt the words she hadn’t meant to say drip from her lips like blood. Each one was as heavy as lead and scented like a decaying corpse. He recoiled as if physically repulsed, and she wished she could recoil from herself. She had gone too far and, once spoken, the words could never fully be taken back.
A silence stretched out between them, a gulf of unspoken shock and shame. Her words reverberated within it and she fought the urge to flee. It didn’t matter. He turned and walked away, leaving a stream of obscenities in his wake. She sunk to the floor and sobbed, a void where her heart should be.
Minutes passed like hours, the knot of pain in her stomach intensifying with each one. He was gone and she couldn’t blame him if he never returned. She cried until she felt dehydrated and weak with exhaustion… And still she didn’t rise. She curled into the fetal position and fell asleep on the floor.
The door opened and closed and she felt the resulting breeze kiss her face. She stirred and fluttered her eyelids, while her consciousness rose quickly through the stages of waking. His face, close to hers, was first comforting, then alarming.
“Shit! Dave! How long have you been there?” She was fully awake now, her heart hammering in her chest.
“I left, walked aroumd the city until I cooled off, stopped for a drink and came home. Have you been lying on the floor the whole time?”
Dave, who had been squatting, shifted his weight to the wall and slid to the floor. He looked like a kid, sitting there with his feet outstretched and she was overcome once again by her shame. He met her gaze steadily for a few moments before he spoke, “Dana, why did you say those things to me? You had to know how much they would hurt me.”
“I was so angry,” she sobbed.
“So was I but I didn’t need to decimate you.”
“So, are you done with me?”
“No but we need to talk about it and I need to understand how you could become so angry and hit so low.”
“I actually know that our I wouldn’t be here. Let’s get up off the floor. I brought back some take out. We’ll eat and then we’ll talk though it. I’m not sure if I need to say this but the talking is non-negotiable at this point.”
“Ok. I’ll do my part.”
“I know you will or I wouldn’t have bothered coming back.” Dave rose from the floor and reached out a hand to her. She took it and stood to face him. She would do whatever it took.
I wander the beach in thoughtful solitude, allowing the sand and waves to pull my world-weariness through the soles of my feet. I had invited you to come, but you chose to stay in bed. I don’t mind. You have your spiritual practice… I have mine.
Later we might take a walk in the city, sit at a cafe and say a gentle prayer of thanks. Later, I might sit in the park and meditate, while you watch the passersby and smile at the sky. Later we might visit your favorite church, light candles and drop to our knees…
It doesn’t matter, as long as we walk this path side by side.
She reaches out to take the offered dollar and our eyes meet for the first time. In them I see a jaded wisdom, far beyond the age her small frame carries. My years of privilege crack and fall away, piling like dust at my feet. I’m embarrassed to be standing in it, even as I take in her dirt-covered face and clothes. We’ve somehow become equals.
“I-I’m sorry,” I stammer. I know she sees through me and I wish I could cover myself somehow, but my ego stands awkwardly beside me, offering no help whatsoever.
The young girl gives me a small smile and I see her two front teeth are missing. For a moment, I forget myself, lost in the aching of my heart.
“What else can I do for you?” I blurt and with the question, I place all of my sadness and discontent on her lap. I’m asking this child for a solution to her situation and mine. I’m asking her to fix all of the suffering in the world. It feels ridiculous and I beat myself up inwardly for speaking but the words and intentions are out there already, beyond my control… And so I wait for her humbling response.
You know that little spot in your heart that just won’t heal? That’s a remnant of the pain you caused me when you broke my spirit. It lives because you pretend it doesn’t exist. It won’t die because you refuse to show remorse.
Do you want to know about my heart? My heart is whole and beating on time. Do you know why? Because I can love and be loved. Love healed my heart and made my spirit whole. Love sets us apart… Until you make a better choice.
She spent all of her days trying to measure up. She had to be the best student, the fastest runner and the prettiest girl in school.
When she grew up and graduated, she fought to be the best in her field. She hit the gym daily to stay young and trim and made sure to put on the exact right amount of makeup. She was a vision of perfection.
It was easy… At first… but every year, the game became more difficult to win. The first plastic surgery was the hardest but it got easier and easier. Sometimes she didn’t recognize herself anymore but it didn’t matter, as long as she looked good.
She had to look good. It kept the judgements at bay. It made her worth taking to. It made her worth listening to. It made her good enough to belong.
Cara steeled herself for the pain she knew would come when he opened his mouth. He was about to reject her. She had been expecting it from the beginning.
Their whirlwind romance was marred by her insecurities and fears. She couldn’t forgive him for loving her. There must be something wrong with him. His flaws became tied up in hers and she couldn’t stop pointing them out.
She had systematically destroyed their love and now, he was ready to opt out. He opened his mouth and her heart fell to her toes. “Cara, I love you but…”
She couldn’t listen. She watched his mouth move but she could no longer hear the words. At some point she realized he had stopped speaking and she was still staring at his mouth.
“Cara, did you hear me?” She shook her head backed up a few steps and sat on the bed. Leroy shook his head and turned toward the door, then stopped, turned and faced her once again. “Cara, I need you to get some help.”
Her anger broke loose. “What do you care, Leroy? You just broke up with me!”
“Broke up with you? What?”
“You did. You said…” But she didn’t know what he said.
“Cara, I said I love you but I can’t keep being the punching bag for your pain. You need to get help or this relationship is in danger. I’ll go with you, even.”
“I thought you were breaking up with me.”
“I’m really trying not to. I want to see this through…”
Cara hesitated. She knew she was out of control. She was always causing him pain but therapy…
“I’m not sure, Leroy. I need to think about it.”
“I need an answer. Are you committed to me or not?”
She thought about the pain she had felt when she thought he had broken up with her. “Ok. I’ll go if you go with me.”
His shoulders visibly relaxed and she felt, just for a moment like she would be ok.