I was twenty-three. It was the start of a summer that bore no resemblance to what I had imagined.
My world has always been a beautiful place, and where reality fell short, my imagination never failed to step in, supplementing these disappointments with ingenious fantasies.
But these days my daydreams had faded, as though they were left too long in the wind and rain. They were threadbare.
I never thought, when I was little, that the edges of my world would be darkened like this.
I’ve never been good at thinking much farther than each day, each week. If I looked too far ahead, my chest tightened and my head would start aching. It was better to focus on breathing; on living each day.
My mom left town when I was a kid. After that, I made a promise to myself that I would never walk away from someone I loved. But I did. It was one of those things I never could have predicted – and it ate away at my mind until I was afraid there would be nothing left.
Heartache isn’t all it’s cut out to be. It doesn’t turn you into a poet. Neither does poetry provide any solace. Heartache is like a nagging thought at the back of your mind – like a memory you can’t erase. Like a sentence left hanging that you wish you could finish.
I still remember the first day he walked through the door. I never thought then how quickly the details of my life would become woven with his. These days, not many men dress in shining armor. But he did. And not in a pompous way, either. It was as though he really didn’t know how to take it off.
His eyes were bluer than mine, and his hair was clipped short and dark brown. He had a lopsided grin, and a thin scar on his left eyebrow where the hair never grew back. Mind you, I didn’t notice these things at first. He was just another guy in a button-up shirt wanting a double shot Americano. At first.
I noticed the curly haired girl behind the counter right away. She was not the kind of person you could easily miss. Her thick, red hair was bundled up out of the way, but little pieces kept falling out around her face and sticking to her neck. She was wearing a black t-shirt, and she had a freckle in the middle of her face, right above the bridge of her nose. Her eyes were not bright blue, like mine, but dark; so dark you could mistake them for black. She had a tattoo of a star on her ankle. Of course, I didn’t know that yet.
What happened between us sped into motion with dizzying quickness. I can’t remember exactly when we lurched off the road, or what caused us to do so. It was a collection of minutia that compiled into an unstoppable train wreck.
She used to be the person who always knew if something was wrong, and could usually guess what it was. She used to be the person who made it feel safe to bare my soul. Now she was the person I don’t even acknowledge on the street. She was the person I walked by, ducking my head to avoid being seen.
The thought of her still made me hurt all the time. But if you asked me if I still cared for her, I’d lie.
We’d been together for a year when I got the job offer. I moved back to New York. My ambition was blossoming into something I hardly recognized, and that excited me. But I think some people still couldn’t understand why I left.
I told him that it wasn’t about the job. That I’d never jeopardize a relationship for a career. I just needed space. And as crowded as Manhattan was, it did give me space. Because he never called. Not once.
I didn’t try to keep us together. I sat in the kitchen and stared at my phone, wondering what was wrong with me. Wondering if I was crazy to let her go. But I had looked into her eyes and I had seen what was in her heart. She dreamed too big.
My friends all went to college, but I never dreamt beyond the small world I occupied. I treated improbabilities as impossibilities, but she walked this earth with only one foot on the ground. I figured that if I was going to lose her, I might as well lose her now. While I still could.
It was raining. I’d already called him once that day, and still, my fingers dialed his number yet again. Someone picked up – for an instant – and then the line went dead.
I lay back on my bed, trying to hold back the hot tears. I told myself I didn’t care. But lying to my own heart wasn’t easy.
Three years later, I saw her again. It was like time didn’t exist at all. Back in her old haunts, she looked out of place and yet perfectly at home. I turned away so she wouldn’t see me. Hunched in a doorway, I watched her weaving down the sidewalk, keys hanging out of the pocket of her jeans. She’d cut her hair. It was shorter now; the thick curls – forever messy – were even more pronounced. It looked different. Good.
I watched her jaywalk twenty feet from a pedestrian crossing. She ran her fingers through her hair – an old habit I recognized. It meant she thought nobody was watching. And still I didn’t call her name, or run after her. Part of me felt that it was my responsibility to breach the gap. The other part argued that I couldn’t be trusted with reconstructing something this delicate.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. A flicker of indecisive movement that stopped just short of speaking to me. Turning quickly, I found him standing on the sidewalk, hands shoved into his pockets. He just stared at me, like he wasn’t sure if I was really there.
“What are you doing?” I demanded. The words felt rough in my throat.
At the sound of her voice my mind went slack. I couldn’t even think at all.
“You want to go somewhere? Just…to…talk.” My voice sounded husky.
She was still for a minute. Then she nodded.
Sitting in the café, we were silent at first. Her nails were painted green. She nibbled at the edge, where the skin had frayed around the nails. She noticed me watching her and stopped. I hated our silence, but I feared her words even more.
I remember when I was little, my dreams always had entire storylines – complete with happy endings. But as I got older, it became harder finish each narrative. I wound up with half-finished plots; stories that ended with question marks instead of periods.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, reminding me of where I was.
I closed my eyes so that I didn’t have to look at him. I thought of all those question marks, and it was then that I understood something. That heartache isn’t really hopelessness; it is relentless hoping. It is the pain of ill-fated optimism lodged inside your heart, refusing to let go.
I met his gaze at last. “Finish my story,” I whispered.
~ Ilana Reimer