She had invited him over to her place over text last night.

“What are you doing right now?“

“Just finished work. Making dinner. Why?”

“I just got my roller skates and I want you to come over and watch me fall.”

He smiled. There was something sweet and childlike about her invitation. But he knew he was too tired to do anything. He took his time to respond.

“I wish I could but I just got through five clients and I’m exhausted.”

“Okay, your loss!”

“It really is.”

He returned to the kitchen and quietly ate his unremarkable meal: chicken, rice and salad. He was sad that he lacked the energy to engage in the simple play to which he had been invited.

As he got into bed that night he thought about how he loved her despite not wanting to be closer. There was a quiet understanding between them that their love required a great distance. With this distance they could lean into the warm feelings and let go of the hurt they had caused one another.

They had lived together for only a short time some sixteen years ago. In his tired loneliness he missed that moment before bedtime of watching her undress. He missed that final embrace and hearing her voice mumble a sleepy “I love you”. The memory became so vivid he had almost forgotten he was alone.

He moved his pillows and body to the middle of the bed almost as if to prevent any further memories or fantasies about someone being next to him. Almost as if to say, “There is no room here for anyone real or imagined.”

He thought of reaching out to someone but couldn’t quite imagine what he would say. He swallowed his pills, turned out the lights and went to sleep early.

He did not dream.

He wakes up bleary eyed and with the scent of coffee in his nostrils, the sunlight glaring through the broken blinds and into his eyes. He stares for a moment at the ceiling as if to find there a motivation to arise more inspiring than guilt or habit. He searches his mind for something to which to look forward. Failing at that he gets up anyway and stumbles toward the kitchen.

He pours himself a large cup of coffee, the hunger pangs in his stomach offset by his morning nausea. He takes a sip so as not to spill any on his way to his desk. Awaiting him there is his morning routine: bills, news, paperwork, work calendar. He receives a message from his friend. He sees the love in it as well as the containment required to give that love given his current state of despair and loneliness. His mind understands; his heart is broken. He knows the break was already there and that life simply has a way of reminding him of it.

He knows that it will be a trying day; that he will tend to people’s hearts while trying to forget the pain in his own. He knows that he will not reach out if for no other reason than that his hopelessness feels impenetrable. He sits himself on the couch and tries desperately to remember what his reasons are for being. Realizing that he is working himself into a panic he picks up a book of short stories and reads.

The story is about a woman who goes to Italy in order to avoid the pain of a recent breakup only to realize that the pain followed her there. He takes just enough comfort from this to stave off the anxiety. His nausea has passed and he returns to the kitchen to make two turkey patties. He eats them with his hands on the kitchen island while prepping the paperwork for his files. He finishes his meal and washes up the dishes.

A sense of dread overtakes him as he looks at the clock. Work begins soon. His patients will both save him from his despair and exhaust him to the bone. They will give him a reason to be—a dissatisfying one, but a reason nevertheless. He checks himself one last time for something to which to look forward. Nothing. He remembers his friend’s advice: tell yourself “I love you” throughout the day. He tells himself, pats himself on the shoulder and goes to work.

So much pain. You want to be held but it is dangerous to wish for that. It makes you feel small and, besides, you already cried the day away yesterday. No more tears. You refuse. Place the pillows on the floor in front of the television and go away. Pause for water and bathroom breaks. Pause to talk to yourself between episodes. You feel dizzy and weak. It means you need food. Force a yogurt down your throat and try not to gag. Eat it quickly. Get it over with. The vomit only reaches the back of your throat. Whew. That’s not so bad. Your real hunger will come at 10pm–then you won’t need to force anything. Need a break from the break. More numbness. Naked photos. Dissociative masturbation. How much time did that take? Ten minutes. What next? Back to the floor. You’re sick of your show but it’s a good distraction when you can let yourself go nto that world. Priests, psychics and demons. Silly, but good. It’s not the show you are sick of, it’s the way it seems like your only option. Text message. Reminder of the outside world. Like you are on a space station alone and you’re getting a message from earth. It’s getting dark out. Why are you sad that the day is ending when it seemed so long? Because of the guilt. You feel like the pain and the numbness is robbing you of a life. And tomorrow you will give yourself away to help others. And it will both give you life and wear you down. It will make you feel human and then, by the end, make you a husk of one. And you will return. You will be back on the floor next weekend recovering from the week before, wondering why on earth you bother at all.

He paced the living room of his apartment restlessly and with an ache in his empty heart. The creases in his forehead remained from last night’s sleep. He longed for nothing save, perhaps, to long for something.

He had slept restlessly the night before, awoken repeatedly by a familiar dream. She enters uninvited. He approaches her with weeping eyes and outstretched arms. She turns to the ash that steals his breath and chokes him.

He stopped pacing and sat down on his couch. He closed his eyes and thought of her. He felt nothing. It was not for her that he longed.

He walked sleepily to his desk and did the busywork that, like a skeleton, kept him from caving in on himself. He listened to the sound of his fingers striking the keys of his computer, to the syncopated rhythms of city life entering through his windows like a symphony of collisions. His felt the pangs of hunger in his belly and walked into his kitchen.

The refrigerator was nearly empty but there was just enough to make lunch. He poured half of a bag of salad mix into a bowl and scrambled four eggs. He laid the scrambled eggs atop the bed of salad and ate his lunch quietly. He began to daydream.

He stood in a forest, the smell of pine cones and damp earth filling his nostrils. Lost and shivering he wanted to surrender himself, to remain a part of this quiet lonely place. He pressed. his forehead against a tree trunk and closed his eyes. He prayed. The bark bit into his skin but he refused to move until his prayer was over. He opened his eyes only to face the empty bowl that needed washing. He carried it to the sink and washed it.

Heading back toward the couch he did not know if he was tired from lack of sleep or from always reaching; from trying so desperately to escape the dull ache in his heart. He lay down upon the couch and crossed his arms across his chest.

The Walk

The Walk – Part One

Mateo stopped and stood across the street from the strip mall he had passed and shopped thousands of times. He only now noticed that it had aged over the decades. He wondered how it had eluded him before and then thought of the way familiarity could both magnify and hide change. He enjoyed its lack of pretense–the achingly utilitarian beige walls; the discolored wood tiles. It looked tired, but its blood still flowed.

The mall made him think of the proud humility of his grandmother’s home. It was a warm and comfortable hodgepodge of framed family photos and duck figurines and plastic plants and flowers. Then, after she had passed, the veil fell: the furniture revealed itself as unfashionable, the knickknacks as tacky and cheap. It was as though she had, through some alchemical process, breathed comfort and beauty into things that were old and plastic. It was as though she had kept the house alive with her own heartbeat just as the mall relied on the flesh and blood of its businesses and patrons.

In the parking lot of the mall a homeless man leaned against a shopping cart full of blankets, clothes and empty bottles, his skin weathered from the sun and cold, his beard a grey abandoned garden. Parked two spaces down was a German luxury sedan–spotless, shiny, and white: a four-wheeled creature far more expensive but far less valuable than the cart. The man looked toward the sky and spoke with familiarity to the gods who had betrayed him. Passersby stared and quickly looked away as if to convince themselves that there was an unbridgeable distance between their lot and that of the man they turned away from. Mateo’s heart filled with a sense of loving kinship towards both the man and those who turned away.

Mateo walked across the street and stood in a sparsely populated area of the parking lot. He looked over at the front of the Mexican restaurant that fed him weekly. He realized how intimate it was to order food from the same restaurant over time; how they knew what, when and how much he ate; how they could even infer how deeply he relied on habit and familiarity to cope with the vicissitudes of life. He pictured the dignified stoicism of the cooks, of how deftly they prepared his food with their honest bare hands. He thought of the young woman who worked the register, of the way she had stopped asking him for his name when he placed an order over the phone, of the smile that, like rays of sunshine, warmed him when he walked in to pick up his food. Mateo decided that it was time to resume his walk. He left the mall and walked toward the neighborhood across the street.

The Walk – Part Two

Though Mateo was sometimes content with his solitary life, he was terrified by the idea of being forgotten. It was as though by accepting that he could not access fleshly expressions of love he needed all the more to find a peaceful resting place in someone’s mind. On the day in question his loneliness was out of his awareness and instead found expression in the desultory gait of one who is rarely awaited.  

Mateo was continually searching for beauty. As it relates to his soul it was more a matter of survival than inspiration. He could not, however, find beauty without first locating the flaws that amplified it. He paused his walk and looked appreciatively at the sturdy white pillars and brown trim of a small Dutch Colonial after being drawn in by the rusty mailbox in its driveway. The house was both stately and small and reminded him of the dollhouses he had secretly coveted as a young boy. He had seen in these forbidden dollhouses an opportunity to create the world in which he wished to live. He glanced through the windows of the home as though searching for evidence of its inhabitant’s contentment. Then, worried that he would get caught, he turned his gaze away and back toward the rusty mailbox. He reached out and gently ran his index finger across its lid before resuming his walk.

The Walk – Part Three

As Mateo turned a corner he overheard a couple arguing in their driveway. Their voices were sharp like razor blades and broke through the fragility of his peace. He fled by turning his eyes in the direction of a garden up ahead: red geraniums smiling at a sunny but crisp winter day, a lonely oak standing proudly amidst a yellowing lawn. The quiet returned to him.

Mateo shuttled between his thoughts and observations, between the inner and outer world. Lost outside of time he suddenly realized that he was nearing the end of a cul-de-sac. As he was turning back toward the main road a voice shouted to him.

“Hi there!” An elderly woman with a kind smile was waving from a bench on the front lawn of the last home on the block. She continued. “I just wanted to tell you that I see you walking here almost every day and I cheer you on whenever I do.”

He had seen her there before, always alone and with a book in hand. It was dizzying and disorienting to him that he could be seen; that the observer could be observed. He wanted to know what she was reading. He wanted to ask if they could sit together when they were lonely. If they could be friends. But embarrassed by the flood of unmet needs and disoriented by the shock of being witnessed, he could muster only a smile, a wave and a wobbly “Thank you.”

Mateo headed home overwhelmed by contradictory thoughts and feelings. He felt warmth toward the elderly woman. He felt resentful at the way she forced him to acknowledge his own existence. He felt both seen and alone. She had awoken him to all that he had and, therefore, to all that he lacked. He felt the old pain in his left knee. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He was grateful for the pain. Grateful for the awful, gorgeous fact of being alive.

He had lost hope in the ability of words to communicate truth. Had lost hope, even, in the purpose of truth. Silence enveloped him. He watched it happen as though it were happening to someone far out of reach. The walls, the ceiling, the sky and the earth began to close in on him. He felt as though he were dying a spiritual death. A cruel death that left the body behind to linger in its own hollowness.

It was Christmas eve. He sat on the couch reading, feeling the familiar sadness that comes when a good book is nearing its end. He set the book down on the cushion next to him and stared dreamily at the ceiling.

He felt comfortable and warm in his thick black sweater. He allowed himself to believe that it was holding him together, keeping him safe. He had worn it five or six times without washing it. It was as though he were afraid that the washing machine would steal away its magic. He took his hands and stroked the sleeves from shoulder to wrist. It reminded him of the comfort he had derived as a child from his favorite blanket.

He realized that the only way to fight the loneliness was to give in to it. To turn off the lights and watch television by candlelight in his soft black sweater. “Happy holidays” he whispered gently to the universe.

He awoke to an email that read, “Our sex made my body feel like it was on drugs. I felt both out of body, and yet so in my body, our body. I’ve never felt anything like that.”

There was a time when such a message would awaken his desire and flatter his ego. But he felt no desire and his ego was a barely audible voice in a distant room. His eyes were transfixed on the words “our body”.

Our body. He wondered why that fascinated him; why it was both soothing and painful. Our body. He walked carefully and studiously around those words as one might a sculpture in a museum.

He had spent so much of his life feeling apart. He saw people as separate beings. Connected by love, yes, but connected by a thread. The idea of merging—even if only momentarily—sounded exciting and dangerous. He began to realize how much energy he invested in fighting off this longing. In hiding that part of himself from others. From himself.

To a product of neglect the need to feel connected can grow so great that it threatens to overtake one; to turn one into a hungry ghost: a devourer—a violent and possessive thing. He was one of the lucky ones. He looked in the mirror in young adulthood and saw the ghost staring back at him. Horrified, he vowed to do battle with this ghost. It was unrealistic to think he could consistently overpower such a foe but he learned he could keep it contained by caging it when it was out of control. The cost was high since to cage the ghost was to cage himself along with it.

It was a primitive solution but as he grew older he grew more resourceful. He learned that the cage was vast; that be could invite anything and anyone into it so long as the ghost was uninterested in it or them. He could read. He could write. He could bring to life anything that was around him. And then, eventually, the hungry ghost would fall asleep and he could let himself out.

Our body. He understood now. He needed to keep the hungry ghost away from that, to make sure it was asleep. Once asleep he could let himself enjoy it for a brief moment. He saw the truth of it. The specialness of having experienced that.

The ghost began to stir. It smelled an opportunity to take over. It loved to see him lose himself in memory and fantasy. He knew he could not respond to the email; that he needed to wait a month or two to let things cool off again. He needed to bring himself to the present. He felt sad. He felt proud. He had never allowed the hungry ghost access to her. He asked nothing of her. He never begged for more. He never asked her to change her life for him. He knew that she loved and respected him for that. He could bear the thought of losing her love, but not the respect.

He could feel how deeply vulnerable he was; how lonely. He knew that he was not strong enough to fight it these days. And so he sat on his couch and placed within reach a book, a beverage, a pen and a journal. He thought of those he loved. He wished to connect but he could not speak aloud. The day was dark. Gloomy. Attuned to him. He felt held by that. For that he was grateful.

He looked in the mirror and saw that the lines on his face which had revealed themselves reluctantly two years ago were no longer afraid to stake their claim on his being. He tried to recall what had occurred in that period between the first trace of a line and the birth of a wrinkle.

He had loved fiercely even if, at times, foolishly and misguidedly. He had made love seldomly but had done so lovingly and passionately. What he remembered was not the act but the color it brought to his world. He recalled the sweet sleepy chatter that they shared after they came. Meaningless. Languorous. Cozy. He remembered how hungry they always felt afterward. The late night drive-through in their pajamas. Burgers and fries ravenously eaten in parking lots.

He saw that his beard and hair now contained far more than a smattering of grey. He both enjoyed and found painful the contrast between these signalers of death and the memories of peak life experiences.

Sometimes we console ourselves with partial-truths. And so it was that he considered for a moment the possibility that these memories were made all the more special within the desert of his life. He had time to sit with them, to study every thread of the rich tapestry. To remember—to feast upon—the details many take for granted. He wondered, with no small amount of self-pity, if he would get the opportunity to add to the tapestry.

Then without pity he realized that his was a discerning life. He needed to love. To fully want. To believe in the goodness of the other. Somewhere between the lines and the wrinkles there had been opportunities for touch and sex and romance. Opportunities he declined because he knew that he did not want them to be woven into the tapestry. When something didn’t feel right he walked away. He chose solitude. And the one he had let back in—even if only for a week—he knew it was temporary but true; that it was right; that it transcended conventional morality. He felt no regret. It added color and brought richness into his life. And that…that was the standard.

He looked at himself again in the mirror. At the wrinkles. At the grey. He was at peace.

She tells me she no longer believes the old narrative that she is unintelligent; that she has passed five out of eleven classes and that she wants to learn everything. I imagine her saying that with her charming and sincere exuberance. She says she has learned that her “strong” appearance is there to protect a heart that is sensitive and “made of mush”. She is learning to embrace that. She tells me that she feels me in her heart at times and that she reaches down to touch it. She thanked me for that.

I feel a quiet and soft joy for her. I can remember her saying to me seven years ago, “You are so much more than me. I don’t deserve you.” It broke my heart that she believed that. I knew the essence of her. And now knowing she would never again say that to me, or anyone else…that is so lovely that it makes me cry. Beautiful, beautiful human adding her beauty to the world.

And that’s that. We’ll catch up in a couple of months. I will likely lie a bit (or focus on the soulful parts and not the private hell bits of my life) so as not to burden her. She will share something that makes me happy for her. Perhaps we will write letters to one another every few months until we are old and grey. Perhaps this will be an unconventional way to grow old together. I have, after all, always said that I would rather not share a bed with anyone.