If I didn’t… If you didn’t… We wouldn’t have…
One fraction of a moment in time.
I liked my house enough: the familiarity, the routine, the mundane. Forced into contentment, I found a space to carve my name. Leaving the doors to enter the rest of the world could be too much. I become a different version of me: impatient at the cars whose owners brake too much and those that step too hard on the gas pedals; scared of those little dive-bomber birds protecting nests no one else ever sees; anxious due to the ticking secondhand that seems to follow me in every building, reminding me that life is soon to end, asking me if I’m living it the way I always thought I would. Unsettled. That’s not me. But it is who I am in the world these days.
Nonetheless, I went out into the world that night. And so did you.
I found peace with you.
“I’m here,” was the text that ignited my phone, light dancing on the passenger seat next to me.
I searched for a parking spot. There weren’t many in the first place, let alone on an evening designed to bring together hundreds in honor of someone who dedicated her life to helping others. It was a momentous occasion for her, and we all wanted to be there. Even those that preferred to hide in shells had felt the comforting embrace of this lovely ocean goddess that pulled people in like the strongest tides.
An empty spot finally appeared on the other side of the multi-leveled brick building topped with a radio tower that reached out for the moon above, forcing me to walk through the dark alley of the business park to get to my destination quicker. The evening had already settled with a faint outline of stars, but large clusters of clouds were moving animatedly with bouts of heat lightning electrifying the air, making the hairs on my arm stand at full attention. Or maybe it was the fearful exhilaration of being out of my house, alone and guiltless for the first time since I met him.
I wasn’t always like this. Freedom and independence once filled me. I would hop in my car, drive for hours, my fears buried deep by my faith, my curiosity of the world and love for nature leading me from one destination to another. Spontaneity was my ultimate desire, lust pulsating through my body anytime a new opportunity was presented to me. My smile was once my light and strangers would stop me to merely bathe in it. But that was all before him.
“About time.” Anjelica stood by the door with her thick black hair billowing behind her waist in the night sky, giving the impression of wings flapping behind her, the gorgeous Russian-born butterfly she was always meant to be.
She frowned at my neutral long-sleeved shirt which, like all of my features compared to hers, was a stark contrast to her strappy metallic cami that plunged to her belly button, teasing what could be underneath.
I shrugged, willfully succumbing years ago to the demands put on me, any provocative piece of me long gone. “It’s organic cotton.”
We both knew it was more than fabric. She was the beautiful art exhibit of what could be when you let yourself be free; I was the battered remains of an abstract painting that barely survived a hurricane.
“Your boldness for escaping the control behemoth will be rewarded.” That was the name she dubbed years earlier for him. It was fitting and stuck. Anjelica hugged me, decades of intimacy pressed between us. The only witness left in my life of the person I once was and the person I was now.
She gripped my hand, opening the first glass door as my heart thumped in rhythm with the bass that was threatening the walls’ ability to contain it. We walked through the small foyer to the second door, stepping into the jubilant celebration.
My recent near-solidarity confinement manifested as soon as the loud music and swarms of people surrounded me. I couldn’t hear myself think. It was as though my mind became so filled with all the external exuberance that it shut down from overstimulation. I never could speak loudly enough to hear my own words, let alone expect anyone else to decipher them. My quiet voice would strain so hard that it wouldn’t take long for it to sound like I had smoked that entire carton of Marlboros that sat on our counter at home, untouched, as a “reminder of weaknesses defeated,” my husband claimed, although questionable whether he was referring to them or me. I never knew why he would find solace in his worst temptation tempting him; I never had the same willpower with my own. Nonetheless, as with most of my days, I resigned to speaking very little for the evening. I would express my support and quickly return to the yellow house on the corner where all my dreams died long ago.
adjusted to the chaotic lights that whipped around the dark room, erratically
landing on the swarms of people, brightening corners, highlighting love,
exhilaration, hope, and ideas of what could be. The energy was bursting in flashes
of assorted colors bouncing off of everyone’s eyes and skin. That’s the effect
that the guest of honor had: we all came alive in her presence.
No one saw us enter. No one, that is, except for one.
Most were preoccupied with each other, deeply involved in passionate conversations or spirited dancing. One man stood on the outskirts of a lively group, his demeanor more casual than theirs, with dark eyes cast in my direction.
A room full of people and you were the first one I saw. You were looking at me too. I wondered at first if I knew you, and you knew me, and maybe we were both trying to figure out how we knew each other.
“Over here,” my friend demanded, tugging on my arm as we walked under the threshold to a different room. Soon I no longer had a visual of him, despite my best efforts to take another look at the only pair of eyes in this illuminated chamber that reflected my own.
“There’s our girl.”
In the center of the winding black staircase was the one we all came to see. She had her signature wine chalet in hand, three rings decorating the finger linked around the base, resembling the two loves she lost, and the one she would spend years waiting ever to meet. She didn’t have to clink the glass to get everyone’s attention; we were already staring at her like a slow moving comet in the night sky, radiating red all around her, symbolizing splendor, desire, and envy that bled heavily in adoration.
One of the many unique qualities about Emory was that she wasn’t classically beautiful, but no one realized that until handed the precious opportunity to be close to her and analyze her physical appearance carefully. Large, protruding brown eyes, thin lips that never touch, big nostrils on a short nose, tiny ears that hardly appear with a very low and narrow hairline. But she was stunning. It’s part of her allure, the mystery of how she can be so universally attractive while lacking prominent desirable physical features.
“My dear friends,” she began her speech, her voice floating through the air, gracefully landing on each person’s ears, soothing the minds of all, even those that carried the most anxious thoughts. “Your presence here with me tonight is the meaning to my life…”
As her words continued to flow, I knew I wasn’t the only one stifling the inner voice screaming, “I wish I could be like her.” But perhaps I was the only one sickened with sadness as a ghost faintly suggestive of my soul whispered, “You once were.”
There was a clear dividing line in my life: before him, after him.
Emory had a light inside her. It was a light that made fear scatter, strength intensify, and the impossible realistic. She would enter a room, and the atmosphere would instantly change in a way you could suddenly see rainbows and unicorns and pots full of gold or any other ridiculously happy image, as though little green elves were slipping LSD into your drink without you knowing it. One drunken night, Angelica drew a charcoal picture of Emory with angel wings and a white cloud behind her, men and women with their noses in the haze, following her with limp bodies and smiles on their faces as they prepared to walk off a cliff. Except instead of falling, they would fly, because that’s what Emory makes a person do.
Sometimes I couldn’t decide if I’d rather fly or just continue falling.
There was a spark in my peripheral vision. I turned my head as the man from the other room leaned against the doorframe, vigilantly watching Emory, his right foot lightly tapping against the floor, a nervous tick I recognized all too well.
Our eyes unearthed each other again as his foot found rest. I tried to look away, but couldn’t. His eyes wouldn’t leave mine either. Then someone moved in our way, covering my view once more.
You and I were the only ones wearing jeans. Maybe that’s why our eyes locked. The room was full of elaborate people who display the best versions of themselves with jeweled pieces, perfect hair, fancy shirts, and dresses. You and I feel best in distressed cotton and denim. I wore my best sandals; you wore your best flip-flops. We were King and Queen of our own parade.
“Please, all, stay for as long as you can. One hour, one week, one month, one year, one decade, one century.” Emory led the crowd in chuckles. “Your invite into my space is always open and will never end. All I ask tonight is for you to get to know others you don’t already know. You are all so important, and nothing would make me happier.” Secondary to being the Mother Teresa of our community, she was best known for establishing connections between people. If you needed a plumber, a job, a haircut, a date or even a bandage at a moment’s notice, she knew someone who provided what you needed when you needed it the most.
“Cheers to Emory and all her grand accomplishments!” Someone in the room called out as everyone held their glasses in the air and yelled forms of “Hear, hear” or “Cheers to that!” Emory was the embodiment of “my cup runneth over,” so full of love with an endless amount to pour onto others, community sainthood awards and accolades continually thrown in her direction.
After the clinking of glasses dulled, the music started again, vibrations from the floor rolling beneath our feet. An orchestrated dance of sorts moved about the room as we all turned and twirled and greeted and parted and formed new pairings repeatedly so we could meet each other and fulfill Emory’s wishes. She had a magical dynamism on us all, combined with the force of the music pushing us around the room and into each other like the waves of the ocean, we became euphorically disoriented. It wasn’t long before I lost sight of Anjelica, her short frame impossible to locate among the sea of tall models.
When I turned for the umpteenth time, there was the man. With Emory.
Emory held his hand and reached for mine as though she was knowingly waiting to catch me. “I have waited a long time for you two to meet.” She nodded to him. “This is my handsome, apprehensive, insightful, always first to arrive at a party, very British friend.” Then she put her head on my shoulder and said, “This is my striking, soulful, guarded, first to leave a party so you better talk to her now, deeply passionate Midwestern friend.” Emory never believed in introducing people by names or occupations. Instead, she would get down to the heart of who a person was. Her descriptions continually varied but were always spot-on.
She was on her way to another group before he could clear his throat and say, “Hey there.”
His accent made my knees buckle. “Hey back.” I tightened my grip on my water bottle as though it could steady me. We didn’t make eye contact at first, averting our eyes to the people on the dance floor as a distraction. We knew what each other looked like, our eyes studying each other from a distance. Now forced to reveal the mystery, we hesitated in doing so.
After a while, the silence became too much. “Is that your wife?” I pointed to the gorgeous blonde pirouetting in the middle of the room, her hair whipping in a circle around her. She hadn’t been far behind him all night, and both were wearing wedding rings.
He finally turned and smiled with his lips pressed together. “That’s flattering, but no. She’s just a good friend, and completely in love with her husband at that.” With a wink, he continued, “My wife is at home. Not one for social outings.”
Standing inches away, I could finally see you for you. You were older than me, that was clear. The gray strands were poking out of your wavy brown hair, giving truth to this. The fine lines around your eyes were conflicted with wisdom and despair all at once. The mole under your right eye, similar to mine on my left cheek, was a unique symbol of beauty to many, especially those that bared the mark themselves.
He tapped my ring with his finger. “And your husband? Is he here?” A rhetorical question, as though acknowledging the existence of the thin silver loop gave permission to pay attention to some facts and ignore others, as long as all truths were presented on the table.
I returned his tight-lipped smile. “Not one for social outings.”
His eyes crinkled at the edges then, a different smile appeared that made my heart arch, a brief reminder of how stony it had become. He let out a breath as though he had been holding it the entire time.
“It’s all so damn hard, huh?”
I tipped my head in a slight nod, surprised by the relief of words I could so intensely relate to, as though he knows exactly what’s masking me. Afraid to address it head-on, I changed the subject to his inescapable accent. “How long have you lived here?”
He leaned into the island next to me, as I focused on the mere inches of space between our elbows. “Seventeen years.”
“What made you
come over this way?”
“Brother pursued a girl. I followed. He and girl broke up. Brother moved back. I stayed, married said girl, started a woodworking business, and never returned.”
I studied his tanned face, noticing it never once faltered. “You and your brother on good terms?”
“We are. He’s family. Besides, he got payback when they slept together recently. Repeatedly.”
It was the ideal moment for him to down a shot of whiskey or light up a cigarette, but he didn’t do either. He merely continued to gaze at me as expressionless as saying he was indeed born with ten fingers and ten toes. I shook my head, processing the complicated mess he was in.
You were you. There’s no better way to word it. I felt safe to be me.
“Your turn.” He tugged on the cuff of my shirtsleeve, his thumb scarcely grazing my skin underneath. “Don’t think I didn’t notice long sleeves in humid weather.”
“Maybe. But are you breathing?”
I exhaled into a long, fluttery air. I was breathing again. Maybe for the first time in years.
“I’m not sure if it’s because of mental scars, outer scars or simple bad self-esteem. Everything seems to overlap these days.”
I didn’t need long sleeves or any clothes at all with you. You could see it all. And for once I wasn’t scared to expose it.
“It’s easy to get lost in the chaos of what we should do, what we want to do, and what people expect us to do. Just like sometimes it’s easy to feel dead even when you’re still alive.” He was speaking from a place deep within, like a frequent reminder to his own soul that he’s more than what others have degraded him to be. “So, are you alive?”
I let his question steep as I pulled a stray brown hair off my arm, reflecting on the times I once felt bold enough to color my locks blonde so that my grayish blue eyes would pop. I let the dark brown return when I didn’t want to be seen anymore, my best features fading in sync with the rest of me.
A twinge of desire to be something more once again rattled within. “Jury’s still out.”
“Why did you choose him?” His voice was strained as though it pained him to ask.
I glanced away momentarily, surprised that everyone seemed to float around us like pollen in the wind, ignoring that we were there, the only two ragweed plants in a breezy field unmoving.
“I lost my family in a fire. He was the stereotypical knight in shining armor or at least a firefighter that came to my aid when I drove to see the charred remains of my world. Then he never left. Even when I wished he would.”
He took a step closer. “And you? Why didn’t you leave?”
“I left the house tonight for the first time in years by myself. Baby steps.”
“Are you returning home?”
I sharply inhaled at the insufferable thought of my husband realizing I was gone, irritably waiting for my return, at a place I always called a house and not my home. Instead of answering his question, I shifted the focus to him. “Your turn. Why didn’t you leave?”
He scratched the back of his neck, and I could faintly smell his deodorant as he lifted his arm. City Cowboy. Masculine and woodsy. It was the same that my dad always wore. I squeezed my eyes together to force back the tears.
“I suppose I don’t walk away from things until they’re completely done.”
Somehow I knew his answer before he spoke the words.
Images of the
house that my parents lived in for forty years flashed through my head. Nothing
but ashes covered the ground. That’s all that remained of a life well spent. “What
does done look like?”
He swirled the water in his cup, the remaining ice cube clinking against the glass. “I suppose once all the grace runs dry.” He chuckled softly. “Maybe that’s like saying once all the oceans run dry.”
“Mars had bodies of water years ago, too. But violent solar bursts can do wonders to the land.”
He cocked his head, the four-inch height difference only now noticeable as I slid off my sandals. “You speak from experience.” It was an observation I couldn’t deny.
You were sending hot flashes throughout my body. My feet felt on fire. My legs felt like gelatin. My arms felt itchy. But the one spot you barely touched with your thumb felt serenely undamaged.
His blonde friend with stilts for legs sauntered to the corner as she rehydrated from her intense dancing, shooting curious glances at us that would have made me feel paranoid that it would all return to my husband if I wasn’t so sure that this man was a risk worth taking. He followed my eyes until he saw her.
“She’s quite the protective one of me.”
“Do you need protecting?” My eyes traveled to his broad shoulders, his powerful stance that was both casual and inviting as well as intimidating and deflective.
He angled his body so that he blocked her view of me, or maybe my sight of her. “Don’t we all?”“I suppose strength comes in all shapes and sizes.”
“Most important is to recognize that you have the strength at all.”
it’s hard to recognize anything in me these days.”
“Doesn’t mean no one else can see it.” He tapped the counter. “I saw a lot of things the moment you stepped into the room.”
“Like my long sleeves.” I resisted the urge to pull them down past my wrists again.
He shook his head. “You are so much more than the things that hurt you.”
I swallowed, hoping I could bury that line deep within my heart to remember when I needed it the most. “Then what?”
“That your eyes mirrored mine.”
I bit my lip as I watched your gray irises lighten, although typically reserved, now plunging into this connection with a stranger, and mine returning the daring favor.
“Why are you here tonight?”
“I needed to be a part of something more. Emory is a church without having to wait for Sunday.”
I smiled at what may have been my favorite description of her. “Did you find it?”
“What I found was unexpected.”
There wasn’t anything holding us back. Not at that moment. If only fleeting, it was a sacred temple of discovery between two people that were meant to be in some form, in some way, in some time, side by side.
We took turns asking questions and answering only when there felt a need to explain. It reflected more of an inner dialogue with myself than one transpiring with a stranger that no longer was a stranger to anything I held inside.
We had only just met but it never once felt that way.
“Why the perplexed look?” He inquired at my flash of bewilderment when realizing how seamlessly our conversation was flowing.
I never raised my voice with you. Despite the pounding of the music all around us, I didn’t have to scream. I spoke naturally, softly as always. And you heard every single word.
“There’s a place in Oklahoma called ‘The Center of the Universe.’ It’s this simple circle with bricks surrounding broken concrete. If you stand in the middle, you can hear your voice echoing back at you, but no one else outside of the circle can listen to your words.”
“Okay?” A playful smile crept across his face.
“I’ve never had anyone else stand in that circle with me. But you seem to be.”
“I hear you if that’s what you mean.”
“You’re nice to listen to.”
We were both grinning. I gently touched the side of my cheek. It felt strange to smile that much as though I was doing something wrong. My instinct was to correct it.
Emory danced by us, brushing our arms with her hand, twirling like a ballerina in a music box while spreading a contagious hearty giggle that bystanders echoed. She was who I used to be. For the first time, watching her while I was standing next to him, I let myself wonder if I could ever be like that again.
“She’s like a magical fairy,” we said in unison, laughing harder at our timing.
He turned to face me again, close enough I could faintly taste the minty air. “I never got your name.” We knew each other’s souls by now, but none of the information two people meeting for the first time commonly share first.
“Avery.” My last name seemed inconsequential. Or maybe consequential, which was the gamble I questioned. We become real people out in the world then and no longer obscure strangers in the night.
“Avery.” He repeated, the V emphasized with his accent. I’ve never heard my name sound so beautiful and right as it did rolling off your tongue. I wanted you to say it a million more times that day, the next and for all the time to come, so I could feel my heart beat again like it was in that moment. I was still alive. You reminded me I was still alive. “I’m Jack.”
In one swift movement, we simultaneously grasped each other’s hands in what should have been a formal handshake. Instead, it was like a green light for the race to start after the engines have been revving up, the anticipation building, the sweat trickling down our foreheads. His hands were warm, strong, calloused, and they wrapped around mine with such fierce intensity that my mind dissolved.
The heat between us created a cloud of smoke that lifted us from the room, floating outside to where the night air could freely fan the flames, not caring where they drifted or what else was burned. Once in the confinements of the alleyway, he lifted my entire body, wrapping my legs around his waist, pinning me to the brick wall and whispering that I was finally found. We tried to stop, tried to say goodbye, but the intensity was too consuming, too comforting, too passionate, too right.
I squeezed his arms, the muscles underneath contracting as he squeezed my upper thighs in response. Our hands were traveling, exploring, searching, finding, seizing, the way I once was so free to live. Our hearts were beating, believing, learning, trusting, the way he once was thus free to love.
Then we let go.
The haze faded. The room returned as it was. We both were blinking in a stupor, rudely awakened by the heavy truth that settled between us. The drunken dancers stumbled around, liberally laughing, freely touching, making promises that wouldn’t be kept, and whispering secrets to never be shared. With our water bottles close by, woefully much too sober to test the lines, we watched the others with envy. Our elbows were safely and gently rubbing as we took deep breaths, wondering why we didn’t meet earlier in life and wondering why we met at all now.
The time. We knew it was ticking away. We should have left right away, but we didn’t. We stalled, muttering now only insignificant lines to draw it out even more. But negligible things get lost on us, so it doesn’t take long to drown, leaving us gasping for simple words that float like bubbles around us.
The music stopped with a loud buzz that faded dramatically into the air. The DJ announced with a low voice, feigned sadness in his tone, that the night had ended. We were no longer alone as our friends returned to tap the rest of the drinks around us.
“You should get home before he wakes,” Anjelica whispered into my ear, jerking my head back into the harsh reminders of what lay ahead of me, like slamming the brakes on a car going eighty miles an hour without wearing a seatbelt.
“Yes,” I dejectedly admitted, not attempting to hide the fall of my face as I returned her goodbye hug.
Jack was watching us intently. “You’re leaving then?” he asked as though I had a choice.
afraid my voice would break if I said any more.
He clutched my hands again, enclosing them into his, with what would look like a goodbye grip to anyone one on the outside that couldn’t feel his fingers tracing my left palm on the inside, moving in slow motion as though beckoning me to follow him. And I would have. If I had let him leave first, if I had read that invisible message he wrote on my skin, if I could have done it over again.
If only I found the strength he had seen in me.
I didn’t want to say goodbye to you. I ambled down the dark alley back to my car, my left hand tightly enclosed with the hope and remnants of your touch, dragging my right hand against the rough brick wall, a breadcrumb trail so you could find me. Blocking out any surrounding sounds with the thump of my heart beating against my chest, I waited for your hands to grip my waist and follow me into the darkness. Or better yet, to finally take me to the light.
But you never came.
That was the day that my life returned, as the possibilities of what could be danced through my mind. The control behemoth would be gone; I would be free. This yellow cage of a house would burn to the ground. I would smile. I would love. I would reveal my skin again. I would be me once more.
That night, I went home to my husband who never knew I left; you went back to your wife who never knew you stayed when you could have left with me. And we concealed the memory of the longing for the stranger we met, marveling how it wouldn’t have been if we both didn’t go, and reeling in the truth of how it might never be again.
You reminded me of the strength that comes from believing in myself, in what could be and the hope of greatness I deserved.