My body felt heavier than usual, like the bath sapped away my strength rather than the reverse. My sopping wet arms and legs dripped everywhere as I reached for a towel so I could get my hands dry enough to use the touch screen.
“It’s Angie on the phone, bro. Don’t ask me how, this took a lot of preparation. I know what you went through after she left. There is some deep hurt there. Draw on that hurt! Use it! I know you’ve been fighting it back all these years but if you let it back in and go where it takes you, it will get you through this.”
I knew Jorge wouldn’t lie to me about something this important, yet was still unbelieving until I heard her voice. My hand shook so badly I nearly dropped the phone into the bath. “Is that…really you?” She laughed. “It’s me. Been a long time, hasn’t it.”
“Y-you…sound so different” I stammered. “Well, the years will do that to you. Two children will do that to you.” I gasped. “Two kids! I always knew you wanted one, but two of them? Just because things went pear shaped between us doesn’t mean you have to go full blown masochist.”
She laughed again, incomparable music to my hungry ears. “It’s actually not like that. I mean I know you’re joking, but it’s been an amazing journey. As much as it takes out of you, there’s just nothing that could possibly replace it.
When my parents would say that to me, I used to think it was something they told themselves so they wouldn’t dwell on how their lives could’ve been without me. It’s true though, every word of it.” There was a long pause. I could hear her staticky breathing on the other end. “I just…wish you could have found out for yourself what it’s like.”
The tears started in again. I’m back in the bath now so it was just more water, I was already soaked anyway. “Nope. No kids. I couldn’t find anybody after you.” She rebuked me. “I don’t believe that for a minute. I can still see your new pictures on social media. You look great.”
I struggled with how to answer. “No…no, not like that. I mean I couldn’t find anybody that my heart would respond to. It’s like how your body rejects organ transplants if you don’t drug it. Or blood transfusions, unless it’s exactly the same blood type.”
She didn’t say anything. Just gave me space, which she must’ve known I would fill. It was enough for me that she listened. “I think human beings are born with some reserve of emotional energy saved up to make them bond with the person they’re going to rear children with. So they will both stick around long enough.
I blew all of it on you. I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life, before or since. The moment I first saw you, I knew I would do anything. I would throw my life away, even just for the chance. So I did. I don’t regret it either.
That Summer with you melted away all of the pain, mended every wound sustained in my life along the way to reaching you. Dried my every tear, injected color back into a world which had become unbearably grey.
But it totally exhausted that emotional reserve. Like how a bee rips its own guts out after stinging somebody as it tries to get away. It was either going to be you, or nobody. Now it’s going to be nobody.”
There was another long silence. When she answered, I thought I could hear something new in her voice. Frailty, maybe. “This is why I stopped answering your calls.” I winced. “I know. I don’t blame you. I’m sure it’s viscerally unpleasant to hear, I just don’t know what else to say. It’s like asking somebody with a gushing wound to talk about anything but the wound.
You were so sure I would find somebody else, that things would get better for me. It just never did. You moved on with your life but I never went anywhere, just languished in a pit. I was there a week after that phone call where you told me it was over. I was still there a month later. I was there while you raised your kids. I’m still there now.
My only comfort is that it will be over soon…and that you called, I suppose. That means a lot.” Even now, all I could do was spread my pain to her. In her shoes, I wouldn’t have answered my calls. I wouldn’t have kept talking to me nearly as long as she did.
“I…still mean something to you, don’t I? You can say that, can’t you? I’ll be gone soon, your husband doesn’t have to worry about-” She cut me off. “Of course, you goob. Of course you mean something to me. Those were good years yanno, and that Summer is one of those warm, nourishing memories for me too.”
I no longer feel nearly so fried. The hot water soaked so completely into my every little pore, I feel like a rehydrated sponge. My erratic heartbeat seems to have evened out as well. “There’s all this dumb, mopey shit I wanted to say to you. I filled this huge stack of notebooks with it, but I never did anything with it because I was ashamed. I knew I was sick.”
She rebuked me again. “That’s not sickness. That’s just you being human. You really are a human, yanno. If you remember any of it, now’s the time to tell me. I promise I won’t laugh.”
I asked if she was sure. “Some of it’s really cringy. Like emo seventeen year old stuff.” She urged me to come out with it. So, reaching back into my mind, I searched for whatever small part of it I most wanted to say to her in the moment.
“I just wanted to tell you, as the lights begin to fade…that you are the reason I’m not afraid.”
Another long silence. “That’s from a song, isn’t it.” Despite myself, I burst out laughing, new tears streaming down my face. Really I felt irritated with her, but it’s so like her to pick at even something heartfelt like that. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her all over again, because every little nuance to how she spoke just reminded me why I fell for her to begin with.
“I told you. Most of it’s song lyrics actually, I told you it would be stuff like that. You promised not to laugh.” She pointed out that she’d never laughed. That in fact, I’d been the one to. “I still love you so much”, I confessed. “It hurts. It hurts so fucking bad. I wish it could be any other way than this.” Only her breathing came back, until…”Me too. I’m sorry it took this to make me call you.”
I fell all over myself telling her it was fine. What a strange feeling. Even recently, I wanted her to know what my pain felt like. Now, that’s the last thing I want. I want to wall my pain off from her, so that she won’t be troubled by it. So that she can stay in her beautiful, perfect garden with her husband and children, living the life that she always wanted…which I now realize that I also want for her.
There’s just one problem. Part of her her past is still clinging to her. After it’s cut loose and allowed to fall into the sea, everything will be perfect. Really, the selection letter was merciful. It forced something on me that I should have done years ago. Right after she left, instead of letting it drag on for this long.
If not for the letter, where would I be in ten years? In twenty? One of those fat, balding middle aged losers in a van with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver, except without the divorces. That’s what it spared me.
Back in Florida, I had to sell the only gun I ever bought for myself, because I became certain I would use it. That I would have one of my many long, dark nights of the soul, and in a fit of emotion I would get it down from that shelf and use it.
Every evening as I worked at my computer, then later as I lay in bed, I could feel it softly tugging at me. Whispering sweetly in my ear: “If you would only take me down from here and get it over with, the pain will go away. Just like that. Nothing will hurt after that, nothing will matter to you at all.”
It was a mistake to buy it in the first place of course. The helicopters are really close now, by the sound of it. I can hear Mom chattering fearfully to Dad behind the door. I’m done in here though, aren’t I?
I feel done. As if after all these years, a tremendous weight has been lifted off me that I was trapped underneath. This is as good as it’s going to get, isn’t it? If not now, then when? I toweled off, then hung it up on the rack.
Stay Tuned for Part 8!