Dear Hearts and Gentle People
He watched his girlfriend from across the room as she laughed with her friends and nearly spilt her ridiculously expensive cocktail on the table. Her clumsiness made them laugh even louder, and the hair she had tucked behind her ear moments before found its way back to the frame of her face. They locked eyes briefly and she smiled wildly at him before turning her attention back to her friends. He watched her for a few more moments taking in the slip of her face, the fullness of her mouth, and how her hands danced along to her voice. He wrapped this image around the back of his brain, trusting that this moment would live on in his memory. It had been a while since they had gone out together like this. He was alive seeing this side to her. She was always effortlessly the life of the party and everyone was swept into her warming atmosphere. His heart swelled with all those feelings he had for her and their old meanings. He scanned the rest of the bar from his corner. It was filled with twenty-somethings starting the beginnings of their lives and a few scattered thirty-somethings chasing after that lost irresponsibility. They were a part of that group now too. She came to him and begged him to dance with her. She fell into his arms and swayed to the song that played during their first date. He clung to the lie that she was in this moment.
They had gone back to their apartment before it got too late. He watched her get ready for bed from the bathroom doorway, the light bursting into the bitterness of their frigid bedroom behind him. She draped herself over the sink and slowly picked at her hair. As she removed her makeup the creases on her face were now more apparent under the bright florescent lighting. She sharply hummed along to a dated song about meanness and love, kicking off her heels to the chorus and exposing her dry cracked feet. She bent down to remove her Spanx which forced an awkwardly bent posture and made the protruding pouch even more noticeable. And as she dropped the little black dress from her shoulders the now freed folds of her stomach enveloped each other. In this brief moment of nakedness her stretch marks shone in the light, long scars shimmering across the entirety of her mounding body which had become so distorted from the flawless figure she had all those years ago. He recognized the bleak reality he had been sharing his life with and longed for the embrace of that stranger who had deceived him. He hardly wondered how he had changed in her eyes, but knew that her thoughts weren’t any more kind.
She turned to him with her now pale, deflated lips and rapidly mouthed, “You know my cousin Sarah recently got engaged. She was showing off her ring at the party earlier. Honestly I thought the thing was hideous. At least she’s happy with it though.”
He didn’t say anything but laughed off her remark about the ugly ring. He knew what she was hinting at and loved her as much as he could love another person, but the permanency of marriage horrified him. His stomach still flipped endlessly when he turned away to undress in the darkness of their bedroom. In his absence she froze at the sight of her reflection in the mirror, humming the song about meanness and love. The remainder of their nightly routine was painfully mechanical and constant. Over the narrow sink they flossed before brushing their teeth together. She stayed in the bathroom to remove tonsil stones with a cotton swab as he got into bed. He briefly watched shows she had no interest in while gouging at his toe to remove an ingrown nail. She brushed again to wash the rot out of her mouth but he’d still taste that metal whenever they kiss. When she brushed too far over her tongue she would loudly retch and he would recoil at her awful human failings. He rubbed his eyes to the sound of wasted running water and hoped her melatonin would take quickly for once. Otherwise she’d spend the rest of the night asking about all the reasons why he loved her. After her nightly purging ritual she came to bed with a full glass of water, which she’d loudly gulp throughout the night. He turned his show off before she came in and started skimming random articles across the internet. She read her Kindle beside him and periodically cleared out the post nasal drip from burning the back of her throat. Persistent little hm hmms inched him further into resentment and he begged to someone in the night to help him out of this nightmare. Sometimes she showed him lines that interested her from the books she read and then he would tell her every time that it sure was something because he never cared. He could never focus long enough to finish reading a page.
As the prolonged silence filled the boundaries of their bedroom she turned to him again and asked, “Remember when we used to talk about all the traveling we would do? I miss when we used to talk about stuff like that.” She paused. “That’s what people talk about when they’re in love and have no responsibilities.”
He knew she wanted to be who they were before this distance had come between them. At one point he wanted this too and remembered, “I said I would just go somewhere because I was tired of being stuck in life. I would ask you to come with me if you wanted and you always said okay.”
She closed her eyes and murmured, “It would be nice to go somewhere with you.”
He laughed at those not-so-old memories. “But what kind of answer is okay to something like that?”
“Because I felt that things would always be okay with you. Good or bad, it would be alright. We would be okay.” She snuggled further under the covers, blindly placing her Kindle on the nightstand. She turned over and went to sleep.
Synthetic hormones had taken her into another dreamless night, despite the coldness of the room. His knees snapped has he moved and every joint within him groaned. He wondered when they had grown so far apart while staring at the ceiling, the shadows splashing between the corners from the quiet street traffic rolling by. The heat of their bodies slowly filling the room and drowning them together. The world outside was moving past them and they lay there dying. He felt that his very being was unraveling from the tips of his throbbing toes and when he turned over he could see that same turmoil in the back of her head. This familiar dread kept him company as the hour rolled into another. He only left the bed when he could hear her eating her own teeth between deep choking snores.
He couldn’t talk on the phone in his office anymore because she had woken up one night and found him. They both knew what was happening but for some reason nothing happened because of it. He admired her commitment to failure. The empty expression she had in that moment clung to him as he walked through their apartment and out to the small balcony hanging off their living room. When he stepped outside he felt the oddly cold spring air whip his face as he checked the missed messages from the girl. He called her immediately, his heart beating to a new rhythm.
“Hey you…,” she quietly rasped with the electrical song of her voice slipping in and out of his ears, “I didn’t think I was going to hear from you today. You’re always so busy working!”
He apologized and she began to talk about her day, which was the highlight of his. Her wrist was wrapped again and it was difficult to take notes. The slenderness of her frame resulted in its structural defect and made her joints prone to frequent sprains. He imagined her going to her classes in the flimsy flowing clothes she wore, revealing the secrets of her unblemished body. Her distinctive smile greeting the world as her silken hair would catch warmth of the sun. She enthusiastically talked about her new academic path and joked about how she’d definitely stick with it because she was running out of fields to change her major for the fifth time. For a brief moment he was hit by that same feeling of anticipation he had felt over a decade before and he fell in love with her again.
“Well now that I have your full attention, I lost my shirt and I have no idea where it went.” She sweetly sang. “Oh no, now I’m losing my pants too! Can you come and help me find them?”
He gripped his phone. “I’m not going to be able to come over tonight, but you know we should go somewhere together.” His heart skipped a beat. “Just you and me.”
Her voice caught itself in her throat.“Why would you say something like that?” She couldn’t contain her shock at his perceived insult.
“Because that’s what people talk about when they’re in love.” And something within him broke.
In his head he could see her rotating her jaw to click it out of relief. “I brought up wanting to be serious months ago. You told me that casual is all that you wanted, nothing more, and I accepted that. I was okay with us.”
His heart tumbled and he remembered. “I’m sorry.”
“All that matters is that we have fun together, right? …Why did you have to bring this up now?” The prolonged silence had found its way back again into his life, broken by the frustration in her sigh. “I should go. It’s late and I have a paper that I need to finish in the morning. We’ll talk again when it’s not so busy.”
He wasn’t bothered by this lie. “I just want things to be okay.” He hung up the phone, the shame burning inside him for the hurt he was responsible for. He hadn’t understood what he was doing or why for a while now.
He stood there as the air bit at his face, the breeze carrying the benign sounds of people going somewhere while he stagnated. The staining dread filling inside him as he heavily made his way through the apartment, fearful of the life he had built for himself, and into the bed he shared with his girlfriend. A newfound emptiness expanded into the center of his consciousness, slowly humming along with the eating of teeth and deep choking snores. His heart beat to the rhythm of his throbbing ingrown nail and reverberated along with the symphony of his continual discomfort. And at the chorus of it he thought to himself, dear god this can’t be it.
Written By: Adriana Hernandez
About the Author: Adriana Hernandez grew up in San Francisco and currently volunteers as a TA at CCSF. She had recently transferred to SF State to study creative writing.