The glass door opened with a thunk and a sigh as it swung outward to guide his exit to the pavement paths outside. The light above the door swarmed with moths and other insects searching for the light and dying when they’d find it. Being too focused on its admirers, the light paid him no attention and there was no light from him that grabbed the attention of the insects ready do die for illumination. A dead moth landed on his shoulder which he brushed off absentmindedly, its burnt-out shell landing in the grass beside him. He shrugged off the momentary feeling of disgust and continued to follow the sidewalk, his hands shoved in the front pocket of his black hooded sweatshirt, not bothering to heed what was directly in front of him. It was late and he knew this path all to well and was walking it again, taking a right turn to avoid stepping into the parking lot.
His head hung low and his shoulders slumped as if he was carrying every part of him that felt dead and supported it like the rest of him was numb, not feeling the pressure in his joints, the bowing of his spine as his eyes pointed downward. He watched his feet skip the cracks as an old habit, not so much out of superstition anymore. His heart beat like a cannon being fired against the brick wall of his sternum over and over again as he tried to keep his breaths deep and controlled. The night enveloped him like a childhood blanket and it comforted him about as much. It was where he blended in and disappeared, only to be discovered under the glow of the intermittent glow of the equally spaced out street lamps that lined his path telling the story of the faces of anyone who passed under them for a moment before they disappeared into the black again. He never looked up.
His mind flashed back to right after it happened. He didn’t want to remember but with his eyesight locked and his path being drawn by the autopilot of familiarity his mind was free to wander where it pleased. He saw his own face in the mirror, lit too vividly by blue-tinted white halogen in the bathroom of his studio apartment. The lines wrote the words “no sleep” across his face and the veins in his eyes traced the shapes of broken hearts and hammers rubbed against his eyelids, now etched into the white up to the edge of his irises. His pupils were sharply dilated from transitioning from the dark of the rest of his room to the bright white of the bathroom, creating an abyss which he stared into and which he slowly felt himself become. He looked down in the corner of the mirror to see the picture he had stuck into the frame of the mirror as a reminder. Now it served the same purpose but only to weigh his heart further down into his guts.
He plucked the picture from its spot and stared at it intently for a moment. He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out, his eyes glazed and staring through the picture, remembering. Closing his eyes, he shook the thoughts from his head and stuffed the picture in his pocket, not sure why at that moment. He turned off the light, temporarily leaving him blind as he headed out to the hallway.
The rush of a car driving by shook him from his memories for a moment as he continued to walk. He reached into his pocket to check his phone, more out of habit, only to see that no one had tried to contact him. No one knew and he didn’t feel like telling the story yet. The wound was too fresh and everything was still too weighted for him to speak. His throat was thick and tense, as if he had tried to swallow a stone, like someone had taken a soldering iron to his vocal cords. Words would hurt this early and he knew it. So, he continued walking until he reached the entrance of his complex. Checking both ways, he crossed the street into a park just across the road. He had never actually seen it lit by the light of day. Flowers, lovers and children did not interest him and, while daylight did not bother him, this night he was comforted by the night sky, the starry sky painted tragically by the light of the dead from great distances away and times long gone.
He wandered to a spot he often went to think when his mind would not calm down. It was a bench towards the center of the park. He took his seat and was lit and surrounded by the halo of light given off by a street lamp directly above him. As he sat down he felt the weight of it all push him forward as he buried his face in his hands for a moment and felt his body shudder as he felt it all creep up his spine and a choke rattle his throat as his lungs reached for a strained breath. It came in short bursts at first and released as if his chest were a bellows feeding a fire. He felt the heat come from his eyes and new that there were tears welling up against eyelids but he was numb. His face was blank and his eyes were closed as he fought to keep his composure, to keep his mind from dwelling on the burning ache swelling in his diaphragm and into his chest.
He thought to himself, “This is not me,” knowing full well he was lying to himself.
Bracing his arms against his knees, he bent over and tried to gain control himself. The tears still came but it was as if they were doing so involuntarily, like a faucet leaking. It was so still that he could hear the drops hit the pavement. They would roll down his cheeks, following the same path set by their predecessor and fall from his cheekbones and crash to the ground like rain in the midst of a draught. His mind raced, showing him pictures, movies, scenarios and questions he would never be able to validate. Knowing full well he would never get closure he lowered his head as if to pray and asked for the strength to forget, only to remember the good things which twisted his aortas and ventricles even tighter and sent a tremor through him like an aftershock as he sobbed just a little when he breathed out. He closed his eyes tight to concentrate on his breathing:
In through the nose: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10
Hold breath: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10
Out through the mouth: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19-20
The intake and outlet of breath occupied his mind enough that he did not hear the footsteps of someone approaching him until he opened his eyes to see a pair of feet shadowed by the bottom of a skirt. The street lamp cast a shadow downward, so a circle of shadow appeared directly beneath where she stood. For a moment he was confused. Someone else in the park besides him didn’t make any sense at this hour. He was feeling egocentric enough to believe the park was his and, for a moment, felt offended by the fact that someone had invaded his turf. He didn’t look up. His head was pounding from the pressure of everything; he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. There was nothing but silence and the hum of the lights in the park, sometimes the occasional car speeding by in the distance.
“It’s a little late to be sitting alone in the park, isn’t it?” Her voice gently broke the silence.
He didn’t answer. The question only reminded him of why he was there, all the things he was trying to wash away from his memory. His face tightened into a grimace and the tears just came. Like a flood of saline, a wave of ocean water crashing onto the shores of his face the tears flowed out of his eyes and yet he did not make a sound and he did not dare look up. Feeling lost in his thoughts he could think of nothing else but his misery. He had sunk into a depression, lost in the abyss. He saw in so deep he forgot his surroundings and could not bear to look beyond the inside of his eyelids.
Then there was a hand under his chin, slowly lifting his head from its weighted-down posture and up into the light above him. He still wouldn’t open his eyes. It was late night in a park and for all he knew she’d put a bullet in his head. He was ready. He didn’t care. He wanted to be done.
One hand left his chin for a moment and he felt the soft skin of a hand gripping a sleeve wiping his face dry. He recoiled at first from the touch, not expecting it but felt the earnestness in it an slipped comfortably into her indiscriminate kindness. She took her hand away slowly and he opened his eyes to see her wiping her sleeves on the cloth around her hips. He looked up but her face was obscured by her hair as she looked down at him. Her face was darkened but he could see that she was smiling.
“It’s all kind of absurd, isn’t it?” She said, looking sideways.
He looked at her for a moment, still unable to speak.
“People. Relationships. Feelings. How they conspire to sort of bring us to places like this. They’re supposed to make us stronger but they tend to take the wind out of us first to get us there.” She kicked the ground idly with her slip-on flats.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess so…,” he muttered hoarsely then coughed.
“Then we’re left with the memories. We don’t get to pick and choose what stays and what goes,” she said with a sigh though, somehow, carefree.
His eyes reached down for a moment, then he stuck his hand in his pocket. He pulled out the picture that had previously been on his bathroom mirror. He froze for a moment as he stared at the face and knew that what this stranger had said was right. And as he realized this, she took the picture from his hand and examined it. Her brow furrowed and her lips tightened, as if both lost in thought and disappointed, outlined by shadow of her face eclipsed by her hair. She studied the picture for a long time, looked at him, then back at the picture.
She inhaled, “Sometimes we get so wrapped up we forget who we are. We get lost on the ride somewhere and get drawn into the illusion of beauty when it’s really loneliness and emotional need. Like the song says, ‘Desperate romance is the curse of castaways,’ you know? Sometimes it’s neither, though. Sometimes, it’s over because it needs to be and sometimes it’s over because of pure selfishness by one party or the other. But when it ends it hurts and you just… can’t get away from it. No matter where we go.”
His eyes narrowed from his uncertainty as this girl seemed to know a lot.
“Case in point: You came to this park to get away. I’ve seen you here a few nights, especially lately, always deep in thought on this bench. You came here tonight with tears in your eyes and yet you brought her with you,” she waived the picture then handed it back to him.
“Who are you?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“You don’t want to know who I am. Not yet. But I can help you a little, I think,” she said as she shrugged.
“How? You don’t even know me or even remotely what I’m going through,” he became defensive.
“Heartache is universal. Pain is part of the human condition. Everyone must heal. Let me show you how…”