With a forced smile and roll of the cashier’s eyes, I could tell that it was getting to be that time of day when I needed to seclude myself with a beer and reruns of some comedy show that I’ve likely seen ten million times. My attitude towards the world is in complete ruins since Gina left. She wanted different things in life; to travel and see the world. I, on the other hand, was two seconds from proposing and asking her to settle down. She didn’t want any of it, so here I am 33 years old with a grocery bag full of steaks and beer chilling in the fridge at home, all for one.
Loneliness was starting to feel like an old friend. Stepping through the sliding glass doors into the chilled fall air, I caught my breath and pulled my coat collar up around me a little tighter. The fall leaves make the world dreary, but yet everyone seems so happy this time of year. Maybe it’s the large sweaters everyone is wearing, they are like eternal hugs. In truth I despise it all, the reminder of Gina’s smile and warmth chiseled a deeper hole into my already dying heart at just the thought of being touched in a tender way.
I have become determined to never let anyone know my feelings, to know that even the slightest memory could bring me down to my knees. Her smile, her laugh, the smell of her hair, where all pieces that shock me to my core. We talked about kids, marriage, etc. But somewhere I missed the other signals that she was giving me. The ones where she drifted into a dreamy state when she talked about traveling the world, seeing elephants on a safari or picking rice on a farm in Asia or seeing whales as they migrated through the pacific ocean. I memorized that stare, but yet I paid no attention to its meaning. She felt trapped in a world that was foreign because of what the rest of society was placing on her and her daydreaming was actually her desire to break through the chains that bound her.
As the late night conversations flashed through my mind I could hear the cranking of engines from other shoppers desperately wanting to get home to their families.They are all lucky, having their lives figured out and here I was headed home to make a memory with the six pack I had stashed in the back of the fridge, it’s twin sister was devoured yesterday. As I approached my car, ready to toss the steaks into the passenger seat I heard the distinct sound of a car clicking at the refusal to start. The sorry sap probably left their lights on and drained the battery. I let out a slight chuckle of sympathy to their suddenly frustrating situation and thanked God that it wasn’t me.
Three, two, one more car before mine suddenly ‘Click, click, click’ I heard as I walked behind the car parked next to mine. As I approached, the click reverberated throughout the parking lot, there was no avoiding the deafening dread of the dead car next to mine. Normally I would have held my stare down to the ground and add a little pep to my step before they could ask for help, but this time I heard the ringing sound of a voice I had long lost. I found myself more intrigued by the person who suffered the fateful wrath of the dead battery and why I was instantly drawn to the idea that someone from my past I had long forgotten about was now just feet away from me.
Her smooth honeyed voice chattered with frustration as she slammed the car door. I stopped dead in my tracks, with my hand hovering over the door handle and the bag of steaks swaying with my jolting stop, I watched her pop the hood of the car. How on earth could I be standing only feet away from the one person I truly longed to forget. It has been three years since I saw her baby blue eyes, half smile with a flare of a temptress. She was everything I wanted in a woman except for the pain she held within herself. Is it possible to be perfectly unperfect? I wanted nothing to do with her, her pain made me ache deep within my bones and here she stood.
She wanted me to fix her, but I couldn’t. I tore her apart at her weakest moment and just as she was coming to reflect on her past I threw a match on it and kicked her to the curb without a word.
My own cowardliness was haunting me through the breakup of Gina. Everything I wanted was gone because I couldn’t handle it. The texts, the crying, the frustration, all she wanted was someone to talk to, someone to listen to her. Instead, I shamed her for reaching out for help. But how could I support someone when it felt like she was drowning me?
Staring at her from just a few feet away I felt the pang in my heart turn into a burning ache.
She wasn’t bubbly, the mask that hid her dark past had been torn off and her vulnerability was notable. It seems as though with a slight gust of the wind or the touch of a feather and she would crumble. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her jacket hung off her shoulders as she fiddled with the knobs under the hood. She was different, haggard in a way. The makeup she perfected was now turned into dark circles under her eyes and flushed cheeks from the nip of winter air approaching. Yet, she held a strength inside of her, as though her foundation was made of concrete and the surrounding particles are the ones that are being washed away. She was once too needy for me, however, on closer examination, I can see a change in the desperation that once clothed her.
How could she have found someone to build her foundation with and achieve the very thing I wanted? Who would put up with the constant text messages and phone calls? Who would be the reminder that life isn’t always bad? The mystery surrounding this person I had left behind was turning into a curiosity that needed to be solved.
“Heather?” I muttered.
Her face, still breathless, was covered with tear stains, fear, sorrow, and desperation as she looked up from the engine. Instantly I caught a glance of her future, the one I knew she always wanted, the one she wanted with me, but the one I was too impatient to wait for as the swollen bump that settled below her breast proved she had been claimed by some man I oddly felt jealous of and sympathetic for.
“Peter” she gasped at the sight of me. It’s obvious that she hadn’t expected to see me standing there, let alone acknowledging her.
We had similar dreams and yet as I looked past the distress of the moment I could see she had achieved the things I still yearned for. She had the family she so desperately wanted. She was glowing and I could feel a seething jealousy building as I stared at her. Was her husband, boyfriend, anyone who would be responsible for the rising bump of her stomach be around any second? I’m a nice guy, but what I did was shitty and I will admit it to everyone but her. What I did to her was set her free, at least that’s what I am going to tell myself after this encounter.
“Do you need help?” The shock on her face became softer, yet more defined the longer I looked at her. Why are these words escaping me?
“I’m ok,” She said with a half smile, looking down at the engine. It’s a complete lie, she always gave that half smile without holding eye contact when she lied. But what was there to hide? She’s out in the middle of a parking lot with a dead car and what seems like 8 months worth of fetus growing inside of her.
“Well don’t stay outside, not in…” I trailed off before I said the words, maybe she just gained weight, after all, you never know these days.
“ Thanks…” she snapped with anger and poise. There was more she wanted to say to me but bit her tongue with the tension that was built between us. Opening my car door, I tossed the bag of steaks to the passenger seat and stood with my foot on the frame. I used to be able to read her like a book, now she’s like a foreign language that is intriguingly confusing, but beautiful to listen to none the less.
“Do you have someone coming to help you out?” Looking for some clue to her sudden silence, I caught her stare and didn’t blink. Her mystery was becoming intriguing, how could someone change so much after so many years when all she ever was was a chatty Cathy when we were together. Had I actually made an impression on her?
“I called for a tow truck over an hour ago, but I’m not on the top of their priority list it seems. Guess that’s what I get for not listening about taking care of this damn car.” She said slamming the hood down in an attempt to hide her tears. “It was nice seeing you, Peter.” She said with a large gulp of air. I could hear in her voice the quiver of the pain, her mystery was the same as before. She was hurting, this time it seemed the story was different, a new chapter had been added.
“Life can get hectic sometimes,” I said as she walked towards the driver’s door. “After all you have… a kid” and with just that word she slid her hand down the bump, a non-verbal cue to say I was correct.
“And one on the way,” she added. The distress of the car instantly evaporated from her face as she smiled down at her stomach. The memory, the power, and grace of carrying a child was something I knew would always suit her. Maybe she had worked on herself, maybe she had found her white knight. My jealousy pang grew, despite my reasons for walking away in that moment I wondered what it would have been like if I had stayed. Would I be the one with the dead battery while she was at home making dinner? Or would we still be right here in the parking lot, questioning our very existence in each others lives?
“You have another?”
“She will be three in a few weeks. Today just isn’t a good day. It was great to see you again.” She said opening the car door as if escaping into the car would conceal the pain she was hiding from me. She swallowed her pride and pain one last time in an attempt to dismiss me, but this only brought on a deeper yearning for her. One that I haven’t felt since our first date three years ago.
“I don’t need you to save me.” She declared looking straight into my eyes “I never needed you to save me” she said lowering her head and just like that I realize I made the biggest mistake of my life. She was strong and weak at the same time. She was thoughtful and caring, but lonely within herself. She wanted to find a way of expressing herself not just alone, but with me, with anyone. And I’m the one who shattered everything.
Looking into her eyes I see every text she sent, every unread message, every unanswered phone call until one day it just suddenly stopped. That weight I let go when I blocked her was the weight that was now sitting on my shoulders as I understood that the whole time we were together she was the one drowning. “I know,” I said looking away with shame, an apology felt needed, but it was the furthest from my lips at the moment. No words could express the contempt I felt as I looked at her.
The rage I felt with each text message turned into flames of discomfort and embarrassment. I couldn’t make her feel better, I couldn’t apologize, I could only wallow deeper into self-hate. There stood the reflection of everything I wanted, except for I didn’t realize what I had when it was right in front of me. Instead, I saw her neediness and pain as concrete boulders that she was flinging at me in an attempt to save herself. Instead of listening, I dodged them and let them crumble at my feet. I let her crumble and fall in an effort to hold myself up.
“I’m sorry” slowly rolled off my lips as I looked at this perfectly mended heart standing in front of me.
“You did what you had to do.” Was that an acceptance, forgiveness? After all, I gave her no closure, I gave her no hope, I only gave her brokenness and a deeper hole to fill. Without looking at me I could tell that she harbored feelings still, I mean she did say she loved me, but there’s no way, not after all this time. “I did call. You just….”
“I never listened.”
“So you never heard what I said?”
“I’m ashamed to say no.”
Was I missing something, that two-letter word felt like a confession? Did she tell me something drastic? Why am I standing in a parking lot questioning everything I did or didn’t do because of this one person? She hurt me, she never knew how much she hurt me and here I am apologizing, feeling shameful for doing the only thing I knew how to do.
“You wouldn’t give me a chance to breathe or think. If felt like you couldn’t hear me.”She stood silent, a single tear making its way down her cheek. “I couldn’t solve your problems or love you,” I said. “You weren’t ever in love with me. Your kid is what three? If you loved me you wouldn’t have gone out and gotten knocked up right after. You would have given me my damn space, let me think, let me realize I missed you. No instead the minute I wasn’t giving you the attention you went out and slept with someone else. You make poor choices, you always have. But yeah I’m the one who never listened.” My rage had turned into an emotional vomit all over the place, I’m not sure if these words were all meant for her or if some were meant for Gina. I just couldn’t tell where the lines were drawn as I stared at her fragile tear stained face. “Waterworks won’t help. You fucked up Heather and now you think you can tell me that I’m wrong yet again.” My voice was raised and I could see that people were staring as they walked by, but I had pent up anger that I had lost control over. I don’t care what anyone walking by thought, she wasn’t my lover, she wasn’t my wife or girlfriend, she is simply a piece of my past.
“Ma’am, did you call for a tow truck?” I heard a deep voice from behind us say and with a quick wipe of her face, she put on a smile to greet the driver. She was manipulative in every way, how could she simply just go from tears to sweetness in seconds.This is what kept me involved with her, I could never tell what was true versus what was a mask.
“Yes, hi.” She said greeting the driver.
Watching every move of her’s I found myself mesmerized. Could I solve the mystery, could I truly know which part of her was true and which wasn’t? She never needed me to solve her problems because she was her own damn problem. With the tow truck behind us, I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t back up or pull forward, yet again she had trapped me. I slid into my car seething with anger. I looked over at the bag full of steak and back out the rearview mirror. I wanted to put my car in reverse and run her over. I wanted to remove her from this world so I would never have to worry about another run in like this. Her nervous laughter made me chuckle, as the driver got back into his car. I stared straight ahead and waited until I knew I was cleared to pull back. Just then with a tap on the window there she stood, wanting attention one last time.
“What?” I spat out cracking the window.
“This was the last message I left for you. This is what you didn’t want to listen too.” she stood next to my car with a little girl who had piercing green eyes, brown hair and a little bow for a pigtail. Without another word, she walked off towards the tow truck. I stared into the rearview mirror as I watched her walk away, the eyes of the little girl staring back at me except when I looked back it was my own eyes that were staring at me.
The image of Heather and her daughter etched into my brain, the math slowly coming to me. Three years, green eyes, unanswered phone calls. Heather had everything I wanted because I ultimately gave them to her. It wasn’t Gina who haunted me as I drifted off to sleep, it was Heather. The ghost of my past held the hand of my future and all I had to do was answer the phone. Cowardliness was cold and piercing, both images I can’t ever take back.