When I met her, she had a hole in her stomach and she had a man on her shoulders.
I had no way to know this man wasn’t her husband. Her ex husband.
It took me a while to sort through all of the cords that ran through her. As I was trying to untangle the mess, it struck me as ever increasingly odd that someone in her condition could be so beautiful.
The light within poured from her and never ended. That amazed me. I expected with that kind of gap, I guess, that the light would run out.
This man on her shoulders was surrounded by a bubble and inside the bubble it was always raining. The way she carried him, I just assumed he was the father of her child. But then I met the father. And he looked nothing like this man I had watched her carry for months each day as she walked by the place where I worked.
I wasn’t sure why she never introduced herself. I couldn’t tell how aware she was of the weight, the cords, the light.
She smiled when we were together. Her light poured through her eyes when she was happy.
And every once in a while, as she’d walk by, I’d catch a glimpse of a different figure with her. Some of them she carried in her arms and others she walked beside as they rolled down the street on skates and longboards.
I remember thinking one day soon after we met that she was a collector of hearts. It gave me reason to keep my distance. I couldn’t tell what she did with the hearts or why she had so many or why she didn’t let them go.
And there was no way for me to understand until she suddenly left. Until one day, she walked by under a black overcoat, not exactly to stay out of the rain that followed her, but more to keep herself hidden from me.
Without knowing why, she walked by my work one day and then never again.
This is when I started to understand a little more about her collection.
I didn’t know it at the time, but she had my heart in her pocket when she left. In my sleep, I accused her of being a thief. How else could she have gotten my heart? I’m not in the habit of giving it out. Or even lending it, for that matter.
She plagued my dreams for months until the night she finally came to visit me. She was alone. There were no bodies being carried or dragged.
She told me that she didn’t leave, not really. She said she was always with me.
It was the night I cried for the first time missing her, believing I would never see her again and feeling certain I had made a mistake letting her go without saying more about wanting to spend time with her.
She held me. And in this way, she was right, she never left me.
Her ghost was unlike any I had ever encountered. I asked her questions and she told me answers. I felt sadness and she put her hand on my heart. She told me to take special care of my heart. She told me to stop smoking. She told me she would be back.
And I started to believe it. I was convinced that she knew what she was talking about, that she knew what she was doing. She told me why she carried so many hearts, but also that she didn’t fully know how to let go and that was what she was trying to figure out.
Drunk after work and falling into my bed on the nights I came home alone, I wondered if there was another man like me in whatever town she moved to, watching her, figuring out the best way to approach her, seeing my ghost in her arms. Or maybe I was one who walked beside her.
I don’t know why I ever thought this. It was insane to think this. I had seen bodies and cords before. I had used my scissors to free so many before we met.
But when I had tried to free her, the cords wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t cut through them.
And then, one night a few years later, she busted into the place I worked like she belonged there and stormed to a back table without waiting to be seated.
She was pissed. It made me smile only for a second, remembering the last time we spoke. But then she started to yell.
I pulled her into the back. I sat her down on a couch in the manager’s office. I knelt before her and put my hands on her shoulders.
She started to cry. I had never seen a woman that stubborn about letting go of her tears. I have always been the guy that girls lean on when they need someone to listen and wipe their cheeks when they cry.
It must have scared her to be so free with her feelings in front of me, because she pushed me away. I pulled a blanket around her shoulders when she had breathed through her anger and fear. I breathed with her, halving her grief.
She said nobody had ever done that before. And then she curled up and fell asleep on the couch.
By the time my shift was over, she was gone. I asked the guys in the kitchen, but they hadn’t seen her.
She came back a few times that week, storming in and then crying. The crying came easier each time she stormed in.
She never told me why she was so upset. Or why she had come back. Only that she was sorry for coming back like this, when she was so needy, when she had nothing to offer me.
That week I didn’t see any bodies. I thought she had sorted it out. I thought she was trying to work through her feelings of guilt for leaving the way she did. She said as much and it felt true.
So, I started expecting her. I took extra shifts to be there every night in case she showed up. It would have been easier if I had her number, but this was how she came to me. And to be honest, I was just happy that she came back. I almost gave up believing she would keep her word.
But she didn’t show up for a few weeks. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to find her. She never left anything behind and we didn’t get a chance to talk because she cried or yelled the whole time.
I was starting to go a little crazy trying to figure out how to find her. I started writing letters every day. I planned to give them to her the next time she showed up. I was going to tuck them into her pocket when I wrapped the blanket around her shoulders next time.
She never came back, though, and I couldn’t understand. I wasn’t able to read what was holding her back when she had come by.
Then, one evening before the dark set in, I looked out the window and saw her huddling on the curb. It wasn’t raining but she was in a bubble of rain, getting soaked, clinging to a man.
When I looked closely, I recognized him as the man she had been carrying on her shoulders a few years before. I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do. I could tell she wasn’t happy but I didn’t know what to do.
I wondered why she would sit on my curb of all curbs that night as she sorted through whatever mess she was involved with.
For nights after, I woke up at four in the morning, even if I hadn’t gone to bed until two or three, and thought about why. Was she torturing me? Did she not know where she was? Could she have been sending me a message? If that was it, what was the message?
I stopped taking extra shifts. I spent time trying to relax.
One night, I got a call from a co-worker. He told me that she was back. She was standing outside. She had a black suitcase with her.
I asked if anyone was with her. He said he didn’t see anyone.
I started to make my way over. I didn’t live too far. I knew that if she was alone, she would come in. I thought over and over, please stay, wait for me, I’m on my way.
By the time I got there, she wasn’t standing outside. She wasn’t inside. I jogged up the street to see if she was waiting for a train.
I saw her walking toward the station. She must have felt me because she started to slow down. I slowed. She stood at the corner waiting for the light.
As she waited, she turned her head toward me. I froze for a second, suddenly paranoid about chasing a woman who had obviously come to see me. Before I could change my mind, I ducked into the closest alley.
I didn’t think it would be the last time she would be able to come back. I had no idea what she had to go through to get here.
But I saw the rain. She seemed to be unaware of it. I wasn’t sure that this was the big it, her big come back.
I figured if it was meant to be, she wouldn’t get on the train. I figured she wouldn’t be stuck in the rain.
I had no way of knowing that the evening she sat on the curb was a sign that I hadn’t been able to understand.
I wasn’t able to see her cry at the train station, trying to hide her tears from the strangers that surrounded her.
I couldn’t know what was holding her back.
And now, I wish I knew where to find her. I wish I had followed her. I wish I had called out, looked into her eyes one more time.
Because I’m fighting a dread that I might never see her again, that I missed my chance to love this woman.