Ten years ago, I realized that I’d fallen in love with a beautiful person who was supposed to have been a one-night stand. They had done the same, and tried to end our budding romance, as we were both in other committed relationships at the time. I cried for three days; I remember the sun shining bright as I tried to hide my eyes from my partner on the ambulance, and gazed with aching sorrow down the street that would take me to their house. He bought me coffee that day, and was kind enough – or smart enough to save his skin – to not offer platitudes or advice. My marriage was in shambles; my husband had moved his boyfriend in months ago, and I could not relax in our house. I could only work, try to keep up with the housework and the animals we had, and avoid the two of them for my own safety and sanity. My lover was the sunshine that had disappeared from my life; I didn’t notice it was gone until they kissed me, hadn’t realized the dark around me until they made me burn.
On the third day, lightheaded and resigned, I asked to stop by their apartment. I had a Valentine’s gift for them and their girlfriend; a poem I’d written for the two of them, every stroke of pen a denial that it was I who wanted those long looks, nights with old movies, and shared bottles of wine. I walked up the steps and waited on the porch with its painted floorboards starting to sag. They creaked underneath in the icy grip of February. My lover opened the door and looked at me; neither of us moved for a minute, maybe more. I don’t know who moved first. They pulled me in and we buried our faces in each other’s necks. Their soft voice echoed through my body. “Stay,” they said. “I can’t do this anymore. I won’t be without you.”
The following months were fraught with arguments on each of our homefronts as we each tried to detangle ourselves from relationships that had long since soured into “situations.” My husband’s boyfriend grew more abusive; after one night where he nearly broke my arm, I stayed at Hawthorne’s apartment they shared with their girlfriend for three nights. Hawthorne gave me both a safe place and the resolve to not return until the boyfriend was ousted. They took pictures of the bruising, and told me that I didn’t have to leave, even after the boyfriend left. I did, though; they walked me to my truck and kissed my forehead, telling me I’d always have a safe place with them. I went home and tried, again, to fix what was left of my marriage. My then-husband would never forgive me for evicting their lover, and crossed boundaries in our relationship that couldn’t be uncrossed. It took a couple months more for me to concede that I had done everything I could, but I could no longer stay. One night, laying as far away from me as they could in our bed, he asked again why I wouldn’t just leave if I was so unhappy. The summer air was cool on my skin as I tugged off my wedding ring and laid it on the nightstand. I dressed quickly and quietly in the dark, grabbed my get-out bags from the back of the closet as he lay silently. I didn’t think he had any reaction until I backed out of the drive, and he appeared in the headlights of the truck. He stood, softly calling me in the hideous pet name he had for me, his voice childlike; his eyes looked dead in the artificial lights. It took more than twenty minutes to talk him down and away from the truck. I drove down the street without looking back, calling Hawthorne on the way. I had texted them when I was first leaving, and they had left a couple frantic messages when I had been delayed. I arrived at the apartment in tears and exhausted. They ushered me in, undressed me gently, and tucked me in on the futon. They held me until I fell asleep.
Hawthorne’s story of the spring of 2011 doesn’t feel like it’s mine to tell, at least not yet.
We talked about this every year, about a week before Valentine’s Day.
“Remember when you broke up with me?” I’d ask.
“I had to,” they’d reply.
“Never again,” we’d say. We meant it.
We were married almost exactly three years from the night I left the house I owned with my ex-husband. The nights were comfortable; the day dawned gray and dry, and the light cloud cover gave way to skies the reflection of my lover’s eyes.
We chose our vows carefully; Hawthorne personally curated the music for the day and the ceremony, and given the DJ a list of approved songs. We wanted no mention of ending or death; we wanted to be in the moment, to ride that wave of joy and jubilation that was bursting out of us. We brought the light out in each other. As I walked down the aisle to an instrumental version of “The Luckiest,” we were trembling with laughter, smiles so big they hurt our cheeks.
We promised forever.
We never said “til death do us part.”
It’s been nearly five months since they died. My body feels hollow, a cavern carved from sorrow, jutting protrusions left from where my heart was torn away. I didn’t know it was possible to feel such anguish before Oscar died, and my womb became that haunted, hollow place. The echoes of my own cries ring out, bouncing off the sharp edges, sounding foreign even to my own ears.
It has only been recently that I’ve started to be able to talk to them, to let them in, to let them linger. It was easier to be angry. It was easier to refuse to talk to them than to acknowledge the emptiness of the space beside me. Now the soft material of the shoulder bag that Sherri gave them feels like their jeans when I reach over, my hand searching for theirs in the passenger seat. I grip the sturdy cotton and watch the dance of the tow truck lights in the bumper of the car barely in front of me in traffic; the ambers and reds refract in my tears, a kaleidoscope of blurred edges. I think about how they would never have let me let the car get this messy, the grief I would have gotten for the errant sprinkles from a week’s worth of cupcakes for breakfast.
They’ve come home, too; my friends and I have talked about all the apartments that fell through, leaving me in my new place, with all her creaks and moans. I don’t think its happenstance that this house reminds me of Buffalo with its wood-framed glass built-ins, it’s layered-painted white trim, and two-handed bolt on the back door. It has the wide entryways and narrow-planked hardwood floors I came to know so well in other 1920s-born apartments. I hear Hawthorne’s footsteps in the floorboards. I hear them checking on the baby in the night, I hear them unloading the dishwasher and the drip of the water off the hot, clean glasses. I hear our summer nights spent fishing in the sounds of the radiator, the forced air system earning its name.
Valentine’s Day was about the little things; great food, wine, chocolate, and just being together, silly and romantic. There was never pressure, there was never expectation; just love, that joyous expression of it we always seemed to be able to find, even in the cold and the dark. We would dance, wherever we could. We’d trade cards, proud of our finds or our creations. I’d keep the fancy box long after the chocolates were gone. They would kiss me until my head spun, and I’d smooth away the lipstick left behind as I caught my breath.
I don’t know what to do with myself this year. I am not decorating; my heart aches too much to hang up the garlands of fish I made for our first real Valentine’s; I can’t bear to open the tote where they rest among the Easter chicks and foam pumpkins anyway. I’ll hang Lucy’s first piece of art, a heart made with her long little feet dipped in red paint. The rest can stay packed.
I’ll buy myself the chocolate, and hell, I’ll take the heart-shaped boxes too. Let them burn; strike a match and watch the cellophane melt, red dye dripping into spreading pools. Let it seep into the frozen ground, branching out a root system, something to ground me in the cold winter nights when I’d give anything to feel their ice-cold feet sliding up my legs to warm up between my thighs.
I will never forget that burgeoning joy, the sheer exuberance of our love for each other. It doesn’t matter if what ended up being the last months were the hardest; we had a lifetime of love crammed into our ten years together, jam-packed like a Pop Tart. Anger might be easier than the depths of this grieving, but there is solace to be found here, too. It’s just hiding in the shadows, waiting for that slight sliver of light to catch off the surface and set it glowing.
So I’ll sing the bebop apocalypse to our baby, and I’ll leave an extra-thick pair of socks near the bed, when the cold feet looking for comfort in bed are mine; and baby, our love song will survive.