I started to show a lot of skin that summer. I wore crop tops and dresses up to there. I was alone most of the time and lonely all of it. I wandered around the house like a caged bird, alternately preening myself and peering out the windows at a bright, promising world I could only pretend to be part of. The lack of attention bore holes through my heart. The reflection in the mirror told me I was lovely, but it didn’t matter how I looked because that summer, Fred, the love of my life, wasn’t looking at me anymore. That summer, all his adoring glances became memories.
I couldn’t name the cause, wouldn’t give it a place and a presence in our house, the house we had built together upon pillars of hope, just last year, after he’d offered me forever and I’d accepted in tears, but “together” was a word that had vanished from my vocabulary along with “we,” “us” and “our.” The tears hadn’t stopped since.
He worked long hours that summer, and so did I - hours spent clinging to recollections like so many little life rafts in our sea of love turned stormy, and yes, it was work. Very hard work. I stopped eating and sleeping. I shed ten pounds as effortlessly as skin, but I ignored it like I ignored everything that was becoming obvious. Instead, I gritted my teeth and clung harder, but still the sea swirled angrily around me. Surely, I’d be swallowed. I held my breath and stared at my engagement ring. Wasn’t this love? I breathed the question aloud.
My diamond was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen – prominent and sparkling, princess cut and clear as the sky that I watched from our roof day after day, always looking up for answers. The infinite blue above me was silent, and yet, somehow, someone, or something, spoke to me in a familiar rhythm that rang like truth but I couldn’t bear to listen. Yes, this is love, I told myself. I told myself lots of things that summer. The wind picked up and the waves crashed down.
One Friday night in August, I wore a white linen skirt with a black and white top that revealed my ribs and dwindling cleavage. Clothes are such emotional things and I had always loved them. The previous year, after Fred let me leave my job along with all my angst behind, I replaced my heavy black suits with vibrant accoutrements of pink, red and blue. I was among the happiest of brides-to-be, and happiness comes in colors. Something else comes in black and white.
I was meeting Fred and another couple for dinner, friends of ours. “Ours.” I paused and mulled the word over. Its definition escaped me. Fred was working late, of course, and would meet me there. Ryan offered to pick me up (Meghan, Ryan’s girlfriend, was also working late), and I accepted, thinking nothing of it. Thinking nothing. When we arrived, Fred was already there and Meghan was standing by his side. I blinked at the image.
“God! You’re so skinny!” Meghan exclaimed in her loud, jeering voice. Our eyes met. I paused and looked at her. At her long, blonde hair. Her big, full lips. Her bigger, fuller breasts. Her figure reminded me of mine but mine was going, going gone. I smiled and said “thank you” politely, but the phrase lashed off the tip of my tongue like a whip. There was nothing lovely about Meghan.
I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but I remember how it felt when we all sat down to dine, Meghan next to Fred and Ryan next to me, and it felt like the Last Supper - the last gathering of disciples and betrayers alike - and what was that word that encompassed them all? Oh, yes: “friends.”
The patio doors were open and the summer air was pleasant, but at our table, there was nothing pleasant about the air. I only smelled danger as Fred and Meghan turned intently towards each other, cozied up and laughed as one, their noxious breath comingling as seductively as smoke. I gagged and winced. No one noticed. The moon was nearly full and positioned in my line of sight. It shone like a spotlight, and the light felt cool and clarifying. My eyes fixated intermittently on Fred, on Meghan, on the moon, like a pair of moths. I breathed and sipped my drink, taking note of every coy look and meaningful gesture that they exchanged, and not at all furtively. Like the patio doors that showed the way out, my eyes were open. And widening.
Ryan turned in his chair and tried woefully to engage me in conversation. “So, how’ve you been? Nice evening, isn’t it?” I paid him no mind, frozen in place by the single beam of moonlight stretching from the sky deep into my chest. The urgent, powerful pounds of my heart beat away at its cage of bone, and I could no longer deny, could no longer ignore what my heart was telling me over and over in its furious two-beat rhythm: YOU KNOW.
I stared silently at Meghan and Fred. There was something about the way Fred was grinning at her. And it came rushing back to me then, my most precious memory of Fred and I: the first time we met. And the memory was the largest, safest raft in our sea but it was also the last and my grip was slipping, the sea was swirling, but not before I remembered that breezy day nine years ago before I’d become a belonging and my heart was big and bold. Back when I believed.
I remembered stepping off the train and walking, no, rushing, down the stairs of the station, forever in a hurry to be whisked away by Mr. Right and don’t you know that all he had to be was perfect? It took nine years for me to learn that all he had to do was love me. My heels clicked like music across the marble floor and heads turned curiously to catch the pretty sight, and one by one, they all smiled knowingly. I didn’t know anything. Yet.
I remembered pushing my way through the revolving glass doors out into the shining sun. It was a warm Indian summer and winter was worlds away. But the wind picked up and my black and blue dress fluttered around me like panicky birds. My hair whipped against my cheeks and stuck to my lips as I turned to my left and blinked away the light. Something was coming, way off in the distance, farther than I could see but close enough to feel and it felt like a storm. On the horizon, straight ahead, stood a tall, blonde man leaning against a shiny, red convertible. The image, no, the mirage, was tantalizing, and my lips started to spread. He smiled in sync with me and my heart stopped to take something like lightening – a jagged electric arrow - identical to the one he shot across to pierce Meghan’s heart now and before I could shed my last salty tear, I saw her receive the bittersweet sensation with a smile of her own, and I knew then, right then, as the raft fell away from me and disappeared into darkness, that Fred’s million dollar smile would never again be coming in my direction.
Jennifer was born on New Year's Eve - a black-haired, black-eyed baby already frowning at this strange, flawed world. At a tender age, she learned to write with both hands, unable to choose between the left and write. She eventually chose the right - her very first act of autonomy. As a girl, she devoted her time to learning, and she read and wrote with ferocious zeal. She graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in English. She would never fully abandon her truest passion as she succumbed to familial and societal pressures to become something untrue to herself. But the world would have its way with her, and she went where the money was. She worked in luxury retail in New York and Chicago for the next seven years, until the need for freedom, beauty, truth and love overcame the need for money, and she made another choice. She would think for herself, and she would write it all down.