And Love Too Will Ruin Us
by Michael Hoak
They meet on the subway going uptown. Two kids in the same place at the same time. She sees him first, the top of his head looking down at his phone. His hair brown like hers but cut short. She watches him for a bit, people crossing between them, people jostling each other for a place to hold onto, people bumping and twisting to get through the crowd to and from the exits. He sees none of this. But when he looks up, he sees her. Only her. Her hair brown like his but long. Their eyes meet and for a moment time freezes there in that subway car. No more people, no more squeal of wheel against track, no more broken air conditioner. He looks away first, ashamed at being caught staring, and time starts again. The train rolls on and so does time.
On the subway again, but later. Not as strangers this time. They are from the same neighborhood. They go to different schools. She is sitting and he is standing. The train is crowded. The train is always crowded. She stands and comes to him and takes his hand and he feels her and he feels in the pit of his stomach both the joy of being in her presence and the sheer loneliness of being apart in two bodies. She feels it too and she presses her forehead to his and they stand that way going uptown and they both smell like the spring rain. They stare into each other’s eyes his brown like hers and time stops and there is no one else on that crowded subway car except for them. They both have forever.
In a coffee shop. They talk for hours. They sit side by side at the table, feet nudging, hands interlocked. They talked a lot and yet he doesn’t now remember what they talked about. Why can’t he remember her voice? He can still see her face, her eyes, but he can’t hear her now. She would remember what they talked about. She was better at remembering details like that. Even now the smell of coffee takes him back to her. He can’t drink it any more.
They are in her room. Her parents are in the living room watching tv. They like him and he likes them. His parents aren’t together and he never sees his dad. She and her dad go to baseball games together and watch TV together and laugh together. She is reading on the bed, he is lying on the floor with his feet up on the bed touching hers. They are barefoot. She comes down to the floor and lies next to him and they read that way, their heads close together so that she can feel him breathing and he can feel her. She turns to him and he to her and time stops once more. No more television in the living room, no traffic outside on the street below. His heart accelerates in her gaze and hers as well in his. She takes his hand and his is shaking. They kiss. He isn’t sure if he is supposed to shut his eyes or not, hers so close to his. She closes her eyes and so he follows her lead.
In her room again, but later. They are both on the bed this time, reading, their hands interlocked and their bodies side by side. She asks him if he thinks it hurts and he doesn’t know what she is asking. So she shows him. It does hurt for her, and then there is blood and she is crying and he feels sadness at being the cause of her pain, a pain he will never understand. But it is not all pain. This moment to change all moments. As close to one as they can ever be, each the other only.
Now her parents are here, because her mom has heard them. He wants to run from that apartment, but he doesn’t because she is in that apartment and he only wants to be with her. He sits on the sofa with her father and they say nothing. What is there to say? He likes her father. Her mother comes out of her room and he asks if she is ok. Her mother says she is. He asks if he can go see her and her mother looks to her father and they speak without words and her father nods a single time.
Her room is dim, the curtains drawn against the sunlight. Her eyes are wet like his. He can see the blood drying on the sheets. He stands in the doorway, unsure of what to do and then he goes to her and holds her tightly and they cry together and she wipes the tears from the corner of his eyes with her fingers until there are too many for her to stop and they press their foreheads together and stay that way until it has all passed.
Summer together, the sun shining brightly on them as they lie on a blanket in Central Park. Or maybe some other park. Reading. Children playing, dogs barking, the thrum of traffic far from here. They are alone in the crowd. They talk about college. This he remembers still. This moment, every detail, is frozen in time. She’s wearing tan shorts and a yellow tank top. Her worn sneakers that she wears almost every day. She tells him she loves him and he realizes that he, too, loves her. He can almost hear her voice even now when he thinks about it. But not quite. They both have forever.
She hasn’t been feeling well for quite some time. She calls him and tells him to come over and he does. Her parents are on the sofa. They have been crying. There is only dread in him. Her father says she is in her room. His voice breaks when he says it.
The room is dim, the curtains drawn against the sunlight. He stands in the doorway for only a moment and then goes to her and takes her into his arms and she squeezes herself against him and cries until his shirt is wet with her tears. This moment, too, every detail, is frozen in time. The bookshelves lined with books, her desk messy with papers, a few stuffed animals, a rabbit her favorite, her backpack, the one she’d worn the day they first saw each other, open in the corner idle for the summer. He is numb. This place is a prison. He needs to take her out of here and they can lie in the sunlight and be happy forever. He needs to take this from her so that it can be his pain and he can carry it for her so that she never has to feel one bit of it. She squeezes his hand and tells him she loves him and he loves her too. He can’t carry her pain. He can’t carry his own. He has forever.
The room is dim, the curtains drawn against the sunlight. Not her room now. All the familiar objects from her life are gone. Replaced by machines and beeps and nurses coming and going and flowers and her stuffed rabbit. Her hair is brown like his, cut short now. He comes right in and goes to her and lies with her on the horrible bed in that horrible place and they say nothing. Being together is enough. She talks in a whisper and asks him for some water which he gets for her and she takes only a sip. Her lips are so dry. Her face is so thin. He loves her so much and even now he can’t imagine that a world can exist without her in it. Her parents are there. They are always there. But they leave when he comes. They like him and he likes them.
He asks her if she is in pain and she nods and then she smiles and tells him that it’s not too bad. He knows she is lying for his sake. A nurse comes in and makes some notes and checks her IV and then leaves. There is no silence in this room and he hates it. He wants to leave and never come back. But she’s here. This is where he belongs.
She asks him how school is going and he tells her fine. But it is not fine. He can barely concentrate. She wants to talk about normal things like this. So he tells her things are fine every time. They’d never lied to each other before but now here they were in the end like everyone else. She tells him she knows he’s going to be fine and that he’ll do great things and he breaks down and sobs and she asks him to please not cry because she can’t stand the thought of it and he apologizes and tries his best to stop.
She asks him if he will please visit her parents. He says of course he will, but he never does. He can’t go back to that place. He can’t see her room ever again. He can’t think about the time they spent there and the happiness of that place now tainted forever with grief. He wonders now what happened to them. He regrets so many things but that thing, that broken promise, is the one that haunts him most.
He comes to her room in the morning and she is sleeping. Her parents are there, but they don’t leave this time when he comes. He goes to her bed and takes her hand and it is so weak, so thin. He can see her veins beneath the skin and he can feel the bones of her fingers. Her eyes stay closed but she squeezes his hand with what little strength she has. She knows he is there. He sits by her side, her hand in his. The beeping machines are gone now. A nurse comes to check her IV and then leaves. This place is so impersonal. Why can’t he take her from here and bring her somewhere happier? Would they stop him if he picked her up and carried her out of here. There is so little left of her that he could do it easily.
Her eyes open a bit and they are the same brown eyes he saw on the subway that first time. The same ones that looked into his. She is there in them and he caresses her face and remembers it all and doesn’t feel the tears in his eyes. She lifts a hand, weak, trembling, to wipe them away with her finger. He takes her hand and holds it as well. He leans in and they press their foreheads together.
The sun is shining brightly when he leaves that place for the last time. He doesn’t know where to go so he wanders. He feels nothing. The city around him is washed out, used up. The leaves have fallen dead on the ground. He rides the subway uptown and looks up often, hoping to see her. He ends up outside of her apartment and looks up to where her room is.
His last memory of her is of the funeral. The last time he was near her. The last time he saw her parents. The last time. He remembers the day even now, but even it has faded. The pain has faded, too, but not completely. Time rolls on. If he could go back there he would, even just for a minute to see her again. Hear her voice. Feel her against him. He still rides the subway uptown, though to a different neighborhood now. He looks up from time to time, hoping to see her. Two kids in the same place at the same time. They had forever.
About the Author:
Michael Hoak works in publishing at Yale University Press, where he also hosts a podcast and reads a few books from time to time. He has moved around way too many times to list here, but he now lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife and two daughters.