Breath

He had missed the lilt of her eyelashes when she looked up at him. Sam missed her intoxicating smile and the comfort, the cool sheer relief, of seeing the wisps of hair curl away from her face the way they always did. All was quiet in the room, though he was breathing a bit too loudly, from the nerves. She was patient, fingers pleating and smoothing the fabric of her blouse. He could almost smell her perfume, faint and sweet.

“I miss you,” Sam said, and she nodded. He took a deep breath, filled himself with air, and launched into speech. “I missed you for a long time and I still kind of miss you. I can see you right there in front of me and it’s like you’re not really there, and I miss you still. You look at me like you’re looking over a long distance and you barely recognize me, like you don’t care, like you don’t want me. What’s wrong with me that you’d leave me? What’s wrong with me that you don’t want me? I’m sorry, love, I am. I love you anyway, but I don’t understand. Why don’t you love me anyway? Why don’t you love me still?” He paused to catch his breath, and his gulp for air snagged in the silence after his words.

She didn’t move. She sat folded in the armchair, her legs under her. She didn’t make a sound. She just looked at Sam with her dark eyes welling with tears, but he didn’t know why. It could have been sadness or anger or fear. Or he could be imagining it. He was choking on his disappointment and his pain. The bemusement in the twist of her mouth was clogging his throat, like sawdust he’d swallowed. It tasted bitter in his mouth. The words he wanted to say were crammed in his chest until his ribs ached with them. They crowded until they burst out again, all tripping through his mouth.

“I just can’t, I don’t know what else to say, but why are you so far away? Why, I mean, what happened to make it like this? I want to be able to go back, you know? I want to make it like it was. Or at least, I don’t know, I want to be able to have what we did, but better. I know it’s not like that and I know that everything happened like it did, but my god, I don’t know.” He stopped talking for a moment. The sunlight from the window had turned yellow and bright in the last gasp of day. She moved in her seat, and the light shifted and trickled down her face and shoulder like gold. He took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I didn’t think that would really be the end. I didn’t really think about it, I mean, I didn’t let it sink into me that you were just going to be gone like this. It still is hard to think it, like it’s not real, that it’s never going to be like that again. How can that even be? That it’s just gone and there’s no getting it back? That seems like it can’t really happen. I can’t believe it. I really can’t. That I’ll never get a chance to have you again, to be yours again, to make it right and make it real? How could I let that be true?” Sam rocked back against his chair, as though the words had given him a parting kick on their way out.

She looked at him with crinkled brows and a different twist to her mouth now. It might have been pity. His words were still repeating through his head, a skipping song lyric stuck and playing over again. She shrugged, and faded, and then she was gone. The armchair she’d been sitting on was smooth and undisturbed, without a dent or wrinkle. Sam slumped, his shoulders loose and his head lolling back. He was still grasping at the air with lungs full of dust. The room was just starting to empty of light, the shadows stretching from one wall nearly to the next. The lamp hanging from the ceiling seemed brighter now, bravely bursting with light in the oncoming dark. Sam sighed, his breath soughing over the heavy knot in his throat, and glared at the empty room.

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Lost Dreaming

When Amanda saw him, even though she was dreaming, she lost her breath. She wavered and probably said, faintly, that she might need to sit. He was so close and so real, three-dimensional, his face before hers and she could reach out and touch it. As soon as she did – as soon as her fingers lit on skin – she woke up. Of course.

When she gasped in the darkness, gathering the sheets around her shoulders, she felt Mark stir. At once she tried to be still, to keep her hands from grasping and her voice from breaking out. She wanted to wail, but she shivered instead. Mark woke up anyway.

“What’s going on?” His words rustled and rasped in the black bedroom.

She shifted closer to him and tucked her head down. “Nothing, I’m sorry for waking you. I had another dream.”

“You saw him?” Mark pulled her closer. “Honey, come here.” Amanda nestled against his chest, fitting her cheek into the hollow of his shoulder and stretching out against his body, trying to let her arms relax. The tension of waking up still ran like electricity through her bones. It took her a long time to fall back asleep, but at least she had no more dreams.

When she woke up, Mark was already out of bed. He couldn’t have been up for long because his heat was still fading from the sheets. The muted clatter of pans sounded from down the hall. With a shudder, Amanda climbed out of bed and began to dress in the numb air. Mark must have heard her footsteps, because he called down the hall, “Want eggs?”

She paused and thought about it, then called back, “Okay. Thank you, sweetheart.” It took much of her concentration to pick out clothes. The red sweater – no, she’d been wearing that, there was a picture, that time they went to the park together and pushed the swing for an hour. Not those jeans, there was still a marker stain on the knee. That shirt had been her favorite to wear on weekends, when Mark had made pancakes for all of them on Saturdays. Eventually she found clothing that was unburdened by memory and she ducked out of the door, down the hall, turning her head from the closed door. They acted as thought that door wasn’t there. She hoped that eventually it would be easier to ignore, just like part of the wall, and they wouldn’t ever have to go back inside. They could pretend that it didn’t exist.

When she got into the kitchen, Mark snagged an arm around her waist and kissed her. Her smile back was wan at best. They sat with eggs, toast, and orange juice, across the table from one another in silence. When the sound of their chewing stopped, Mark sighed. “I hate when you dream about him. You’re upset all day.”

Amanda’s heart thumped in her chest. She said, “I don’t hate dreaming about him.”

Mark lifted an eyebrow. He was trying to be brave, she thought. He always tried to comfort her, as if it weren’t his loss too, as if it didn’t hurt him as much. It made it all worse.

She struggled to find the words to explain. “It’s not like that’s bad. I mean, they’re not nightmares. He’s there, you know? Still there, still fine, nothing’s wrong. It’s, I don’t know, do you know what I mean though? I just get to see him, while I’m asleep.”

Mark’s mouth twisted. His eyes were beginning to sprout crinkles when he smiled or scowled. She had just begun to notice them. He swallowed, and said, “Right, that makes sense. Okay, so why is dreaming about him so bad if you get to see him?”

She looked at him as if he were crazy. Surely he didn’t really need to ask. “I always wake up.”

 

Being Surprised by Grief

Anna was hurrying home, because she thought she was going to cry. Probably nobody would notice anyway, since in this dark she could barely see her feet moving over the sidewalk. Even so, she felt she’d be much more comfortable dissolving in tears on her own bed, rather than sniffling awkwardly as she walked down the street.

Her phone buzzed against her side, and with a wriggle she pulled it from her pocket. A message scrolled across the top: PATRICK hi sweetie you ok? how about you come have dinner with us tomorrow at 7 let me know. She shoved the phone back, clicking it off, and tucked her head to her chest. When she got to the stairway at the end of the block, she clamped a hand on the railing as if it were all that was holding her upright.

She felt she was sliding down the stairs and if she leaned a little too far she would just fold forward and crumple, bend, her knees collapsing until she sunk into a heap gently slipping downwards. To keep that from happening, Anna narrowed her eyes and concentrated on getting down the stairs. A moment later she was surprised to find herself at the bottom, no stairs left, and her knees still locked and straight.

When Anna arrived at the door to her apartment she was surprised again, fumbling for the key and then realizing what she was doing. It was lucky, she observed to herself, that her body knew what to do without her having to think about it at all. She was done unlocking the door by the time she finished thinking this, and floated into the room wondering at herself.

Before she even formed the thought Anna was in her bedroom, the lights flicked on and her bag draped over the chair. She sat heavily on her bed and leaned her head into her arms. She sat like that for a long time, thinking about crying, waiting for the tears to come. She was surprised again when they didn’t, and she was doing nothing more than sitting on her bed, eyes dry and burning, with her arms wrapped around her head and her heart aching.

Mourning

Everyone was leaving. She could hear the footsteps behind her, clacking and slapping against the cold marble floor, the rustle and shuffle of clothes brushing and the whisper of voices just meeting the cold autumn air. If she turned, someone would come over and clasp her hands, mutter sorry, tell her again how Neil was a good friend, coworker, brother. She didn’t want to hear any more of it. She didn’t want to see the eyes welling with tears or the wrinkles that shuddered in curves around frowns.

Instead, she bent forward and laid her head in her hands, elbows digging into her knees. That way, everything was out of her view – the smooth wood and bursting flowers before her, the clusters of murmuring mourners behind. Only the floor spread before her, through the gaps between her fingers, flat and unremarkable. She stared at it until her eyes burned, waiting for everybody to be gone.

Let Go

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go.” The words were ringing in his head all the way home, as the train swayed and screeched on the tracks and the woman sitting across from him sniffled into a ragged crumpled tissue. Adam watched her without really seeing, eyes fixed on the hand that pulled the balled Kleenex from her pocket to her nose and then back again. Over and over and over, and the words repeated in his head.

The necklace was in his pocket, tangled around a penknife and half a dollar in loose change. He could feel the cold round shape of it pressed against his thigh. Every few minutes he slipped a finger into his pocket and twined it around the chain. When he got home, he told himself, then he could look at it. It would be a bad habit to flick it open and put it away again, like the woman there with her dripping nose.

He got home late, despite having left early. The factory had still been humming when he stumped out. Ed had watched him go, probably saying goodbye to his back. The jerk hadn’t even apologized, just gave him the mechanical pre-constructed line that he probably had to give to everyone, that was probably written in a manual somehow for how to disassemble someone’s life. It struck him as appropriate for firing a factory worker that the excuses would also be mass-produced and impersonal. He wouldn’t miss the stamped plastic and the monotony, that was certain.

Everything else was going to be more difficult. The chain dug into his finger as he clutched it, and when he let go there was a neat dotted line spiraling around his hand. He was impatient as he fumbled for keys, and his breath was still short after climbing the stairs. When he got inside he threw a dinner in the microwave and turned on the television. The nightly news was just starting, and the repetitive melody of the reporter’s voice helped to drown out his own thoughts. When he noticed the words in his head reappearing he turned his eyes to the screen and listened hard, pushing the disasters and interviews into his head in place of the clutter from his mind.

Periodically he pulled the necklace to his face and flipped open the locket. He watched Clarice’s face stay still before him, her eyes steadier in the photo than they’d ever seemed on her. She watched him with a faint smile that made him ache, but somehow it was easier. Otherwise all he felt was an awful deadly dullness, heavy in his stomach. In another few months maybe he really wouldn’t have anything left at all, not even the meager things he was still holding on to now. No apartment, no – well he really only had that now, didn’t he? The apartment and the things in it. Some furniture, junk food, clothes, bronze locket, sense of crushing despair. That about covered it.

The news program ended and the remains of his dinner were put away. It was almost late enough to sleep, and the oblivion his bed promised was too tempting to resist. He curled under the covers and put the locket in front of him, on the other pillow where there was still the trace of a hollow from her head. She was almost looking at him, and he lay unmoving and looked back. He hadn’t slept a night without putting her picture where he could see it, though it had been nearly half a year now. It had almost seemed to get easier, almost bearable. Now, of course, everything was torn and ragged again.

It was hard to know how to feel something like this. It felt like it was too much for him to hold, that his chest would burst and his eyes overflow. Instead he lay, waiting for sleep to cover him. His eyes were still fixed on Clarice’s in the picture, and his throat still tight with pain. He sank into sleeping very slowly, and the words began to repeat again as her face disappeared and his eyes closed. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go – ”