Memories of him were lodged in her mind, like bits of shrapnel. Sometimes one would spontaneously work its way to the surface, leaving her bleeding and pained. She wished her trauma would stay buried deep within. Reliving the pain again and again was asking too much of her broken, fragile heart.
The winding, dusty roads stretched out before her, as she stood wracked with indecision. It was fully dark and she would be expected at home. The familiar road beckoned with welcoming warmth and comfort, but the other road…
She felt his heart calling through the trees, like a physical tether drawing them closer and closer. All she had to do was choose to submit to his charms and… And give up everything she had built, she reminded herself. He was a whim, a clever lie wrapped up in exciting packaging, but inside, as complex and frustrating as anyone else.
She sighed, shook off the adrenaline, and chose to go home, where broken love could be mended and made whole and strong.
Papa always told her she was powerful. “Watch, Nikki,” he said, pointing at the sky, “Stare at that cloud and wish it away… Keep staring. It will disappear.”
“Papa! The cloud is breaking apart!! I did it, Papa. I did it!”
“Yes, Little One, you did… And now you know how powerful you are.”
That was Papa. He was always trying to make sure she felt powerful. Maybe it because he saw what it was like to be a girl in this world, or maybe it was just because she was his flesh and blood. Whatever the reason, it was one of his favorite topics. He always said, “Darling, anyone who tries to keep us down will get a double dose of regret.” He meant it too, she was sure of it.
Even on his deathbed, he would wax eloquently about the power she would wield in the world. “Nikki, know your talents and the world will fall at your feet.” Or, “Nikki, don’t forget you have the power to convince them to do what you want.” Or, “Nikki, never let anyone tell you, you can’t do something. You can do anything you want. You are in charge of your destiny.”
She wasn’t in charge, though, not really. If she was, he wouldn’t have succumbed to the disease that stole all of his vitality and left him a skeletal, bleeding mess. From the first diagnosis she had prayed, begged and bargained. She felt like all she did was pray, as this new epidemic swept through the gay community, killing so many of those they held dear. She had stared at the withering bodies of uncles, friends and finally her father, willing the disease to dissipate, like the clouds of her childhood. It didn’t. She was powerless to stop it.
Staring now into the coffin, which held the remains of her life, she had never felt so alone. She was an orphan. She was sixteen and had no one, except for the strange, cold, indifferent aunt who had begrudgingly agreed to take her in. Where was her power now, she wondered, biting her lip.
Aunt Bea was sitting in the back of the funeral home, staring straight ahead, as if she could avoid the horror of her nephew’s death by not looking. Or perhaps, it was his living she was scandalized by. Nikki refused to go sit beside her. She would not leave until she was summoned. She wasn’t going to let her sit back there, pretending her father’s death, his life didn’t matter.
She sat, watching the few remaining friends come and go, some also sick and dying, supported by lovers as they paid their final respects. She continued to sit as shadows grew long and the patrons dwindled and died away completely. The room grew dark and quiet. She heard Aunt Bea stirring, then shuffling to her feet, followed by the muffled thump of her cane as she made her way down the carpeted aisle.
The thumping stopped and Nikki felt a hand on her shoulder. “It’s time, Nikki. Say your goodbyes.”
“No. I won’t go until you pay your respects.”
She felt the hand on her shoulder stiffen for a moment. “Push in so I can sit, Nikki…” Nikki didn’t move. “Please, I just want to sit and talk.”
Nikki stood, moved one seat over, and plopped into the chair, rather harder than necessary. Aunt Bea lowered herself into the aisle seat, propping her cane between her knees. She took a deep, shuddering breath. “You think I had a problem with your father, and that’s why I didn’t come around.”
“No one did. His whole family disowned him. Over something he couldn’t help being.” The power of her emotions overwhelmed her and she stood, toppling her chair. She was unable to contain herself any longer. All of the pain and anger that had been building for months had reached its breaking point. “He was a great man and none of you bothered to know him! Over something he couldn’t control… and it made no difference. He’s gone and I loved him and I’m stuck with a stupid bigoted family who abandoned him… Abandoned us! You weren’t there when he was dying. No one was there! I hate you! I hate all of you! And I’m not leaving with you until you go up there and you pay your respects!”
She stopped abruptly. She had sobbed and snotted and spit all over Aunt Bea. She didn’t care. She stood over her, glaring at her, daring her to yell back… But she didn’t. She continued to sit there, her eyes squarely on Nikki’s… And then she stood. Nikki was sure she would turn and leave and she would once again, be abandoned and alone, doomed to the worst kind of foster care.
But Aunt Bea didn’t head for the back of the room. She turned and lumbered toward the casket, bent her knees, and lowered herself slowly to the prayer bar.
She knelt silently for a long time before she spoke. “I should have checked on you. I didn’t even know you had a daughter and that’s my own fault. I didn’t abandon you because you were gay. My sister, well, she was always a bigot and I’m sorry for that. She didn’t tell us anything about you. We didn’t know what became of you and frankly, I was afraid to ask.” She shifted her weight back and forth as she spoke. “When I told her about you, about your daughter, well, let’s just say she was less than kind… And no longer speaking to me. I can’t help that and I don’t care. This girl you raised, she’s fierce and she’s right. You deserve my respect. I’m sorry I waited for her to yell at me. I just felt like it would be disrespectful. I think… I think Nikki needs to know, I’m as afraid as she is right now.” Her shoulders sagged and she leaned onto the bar for support, as great, wretched sobs wracked her frail body.
Nikki watched from her seat. She wanted to stay hardened. She wanted to be angry but she was moved, in spite of herself. The old lady’s sobs echoed through the room and Nikki found herself getting up and tiptoeing toward the casket. Reaching it, she placed a hand on her aunt’s shoulder.
Aunt Bea looked up and tear-soaked eyes met tear-soaked eyes. Nikki reached out a hand to help her up. “Let’s go home,” she offered.
“Yes. Let’s. I’ll make you some dinner.”
“Thank you,” Nikki answered, allowing the old lady to take her arm as they walked, “I would like that.” As they left the funeral parlor, the young girl thought, perhaps she had found her power after all.
“Heart’s Helpline. Yooooouuuuuu’vvvvveee got heart!”
“Hi, Heart. This is Joel and I’m looking for love.”
“Ok. So, Joel, why do you think you’re having trouble finding it?”
“Well, I’m a little shy.”
“Shy isn’t an answer, Joel, and frankly, doesn’t make sense, since you called a radio show.”
“But I am.”
“Ok. Let’s assume your shyness is the reason you’re alone. What’s going on there? Why are you afraid to talk to a potential lover?”
“I try but whenever I approach someone, I shut down completely and can’t speak.”
“Well, I guess I think I’ll be embarrassed if they reject me.”
“Have you tried a dating app?”
“Well, no. I only have a flip phone.”
“I see. How old are you, Joel?”
“Ok. Well, then… How about the senior center. Do they have any singles events?”
“They have dances once a month but I’ve never gone. I want to meet a younger woman.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing if it happens organically… But I wonder if the reason you’re feeling so worried about rejection is because you’re trying too hard to date someone who looks a certain way, instead of allowing a true connection to happen.”
“Joel? Are you still there?”
“Joel, go to the dance at the senior center.”
“I don’t know… “
“Well, you called me for help and that’s what I have to offer.”
“Ok, Joel, I’ve got to get to the next caller. Good luck.”
“Heart’s Helpline! Yoooooouuuu’vvvvvveeee got heart!”
I keep my self-hatred in a box, along with my biggest fears: rejection, expulsion and my complete detestability. Maybe someday I’ll stop opening the box…
But apparently, today is not that day.
In a moment, I lived a lifetime. Our lifetime… All the things we did and all the things we were together.
In a moment, I yearned for you, even as I held your hand. I needed you… But you were slipping away.
In a moment, I prayed for mercy. I begged for your life. I reached an impasse.
In a moment… I let you go and set you free.
He tipped his hat and winked at the clerk as he walked through the door. She nodded in return and gave him a genuine smile. It lit up her face and filled his heart with gladness.
Once upon a time, the smile would have been a swoon and he might have asked her for a date. But not today. His youthful looks had gone the way of the radio and now the girls thought he was cute, instead of handsome.
It was no matter. He had lived a full life, his beautiful bride by his side and today, when he entered the pharmacy it was to pick up the medicines which kept her heart beating strong and true. Still, he couldn’t help but smile at the young ladies. He couldn’t stop chatting with the young men. He had so much love to give to everyone around him.
There’s a deep place in my heart where we are forever frolicking on the wild shoreline. You are wearing the blue hat you bought at the beachside shop and your crooked smile catches my heart in my throat. I reach out to you, laughing and you pull me into your arms and into the waves.
The memories flash on the back of my eyelids, like snapshots of our life together. Soon, I will join you in the great beyond. I smile as I feel you moving closer… And then you take my hand and pull me into the waves.
Somewhere deep in my subconscious is a nagging doubt. When it rises, I fling it to the furthest corner of my mind, where it rots and festers. I don’t care. I’m well-versed in denial.
“What are you thinking?” you ask, snuggling more deeply into my arms.
“Nothing. Just… I don’t want this to end.” You smile and let out a contented sigh. I kiss your naked chest and we fall back into silence.
I hate silence. It allows the subconscious to come alive…
The thing in the corner has become corporeal in our room. I hear it rustling but I’m afraid to look. It whimpers but I keep my gaze steadfastly on you. You don’t seem to notice anything.
I pull you tighter to me and pepper your skin with kisses. I’m determined not to ruin our time together. I push the horror away while we make love again.
“I love you,” I say into the silence of our post-coital relaxation. You don’t answer.
“Hal… ” Still nothing. I turn to look into your eyes but they’re gone. Replaced by dark empty holes. There’s growling from the corner.
“No! I won’t look!” The growling becomes fiercer but now it’s emanating from you.
“Hal!” Your face is demonic and I’m actually terrified of you. I jump from the bed and run to the door, flying through it without a second thought.
I’m in a white room lying on an examination table. Everything is clinical and sterile. My mind scrambles to pull it together and then I remember. I reach up, desperately feeling my head. One by one I rip the electrodes and leave them dangling from the mechanism. The attendant’s face is filled with bemused sympathy.
“You said it would be like dreaming!” I accused.
“It was a nightmare!”
“The whole thing?”
“No… ” I feel the adrenaline releasing its grip. “No. Not all of it. But still.”
“You wanted the widow’s package. We gave you that. Tell me what part went wrong.”
“I think I knew… I knew it wasn’t real. My subconscious broke through.”
“Maybe you just feel guilty about the way you treated me when I was alive.” Before my eyes the attendant’s face becomes yours.
“No.” I whimper, “Hal, no. I meant to be a good wife. I just got frustrated.”
“You were a terrible wife. You made my last days hell.”
Once again, I run for the door and wake up in the sterile room, pulling the electrodes off in a panic.
“Are you ok?” the attendant asked.
I sit blinking into the whiteness, still feeling your wrath and love, neither of which I can ever access again. It breaks me and for the first time since you died, I cry.
The attendant leaves and is quickly replaced by the therapist. “Yuli,” he said gently, “it’s time to face your fears so you can mourn Hal’s death in a healthy way.”
“Is that what this exercise was about?” I sob.
“Yes. You’re ready. It’s time to talk about Hal.”
I nod but keep sobbing. How can I tell him how horrible I was to you? How could I admit the things I had thought and said in our final days together?
“I… I loved him but we were fighting. I was so mean.” I cover my face with my hands.
“I see. That’s why you haven’t been able to mourn…”
“I don’t want to think about it. I hate myself too much.”
“And Hal? How did he feel about you?”
“He loved me and I hurt him because I was angry.”
“And he’d want you to suffer like this?”
The question stops me cold. Would you want me to suffer no matter how horrible our last fight was? I shake my head. “No. Hal wouldn’t want that.”
“Good. That’s a starting place. Let’s step into my office and we can begin the process of making you whole.”
I nod and follow, not because I want to let you go but because I want to remember you clearly. For the first time, I feel your presence with me and realize you’ve been here all along.