“When I learned there’s no heaven, I wanted to kill myself.”
His words rang in my head as I pulled off the highway. “We create our own heavens and hells,” I finally responded, after a seeming eternity.
“What happened tonight?” His eyes were lit with whiskey as his hand grazed my thigh. My skin pulled at his touch before I settled, keeping still, chest barely rising and falling with each shallow breath. He shifted his gaze from me to the parking lot through the passenger window, his silhouette lit by the yellow plaza lights. It was nearing five o’clock in the morning and the sun hadn’t yet peaked over the horizon, and wouldn’t for another two hours.
“I gotta leave.”
“Don’t. We’ll figure something out.” He eyed the backseat.
“I’m not going to fuck you.”
“Then call it making love.”
I knew he had a two p.m. flight out of Chicago from the get-go, but nonetheless agreed to go out for drinks. He was handsome and I was bored, and already practiced in the art of leaving, though it was usually me skipping town after I’d gotten my fix and seen enough. Lusting after someone for one night had become something of a sport, an activity I enjoyed on occasion to pass the time or to shock myself out of the submission of day-to-day existence. The process followed a predictable pattern with only slight variation, so generally I would show my best side to someone and then promptly refuse to see him again. This, I reasoned, would allow me the position of a muse for a legion of men, half in love, across the country. The idea resonated with me like a Robert Frost poem, and quickly I became jaded from hazel eyed see-right-through-yous and someone calling me “princess.”
There are just fewer than 318 million people in the United States. If you’re constantly exploring new cities, the chance of meeting the same person twice is less than one percent. When you’re meeting someone for the first and only time, you don’t have to worry about how you present yourself. Cracks don’t show through in memory. There’s no reason to prove anything, and there’s no future to worry about. Because it’s the only time, you can’t take it for granted.
I had already let him kiss me, and even that was too far. Physical contact was a definite no in my playbook; touching someone for the first time is the best high and an easy addiction. Even the slightest tracing of fingers could prove electric, forcing out the rest of the world and allowing for clouded judgment. But it had happened, and since we silently agreed upon the knowing of a fleeting night, we opted for the late bar and stayed until close.
And then we were there in my car with an artificial golden dawn of lights in the parking lot. Goodbyes are ineffective and never easy, so I cut to the chase with the slice of a guillotine.
He leaned in for a last kiss and I thought, how stupid, because I didn’t want to wonder if I would miss him or remember the way he smiled when Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” came on. I’d noticed the way women stared at him, the envy in their eyes when he had given me his jacket as we shared a cigarette. He hadn’t looked at a single one, but I figured how he did at home. I pulled away.
“Get out of my fucking car.”
“Jesus Christ. Okay.”
I showed no expression as he moved his hand to the door to push it open and I knew it was over before it had a chance.
I woke up the next afternoon groggy and forgetful. The tile in my bathroom felt cold under the pads of my feet, and as I splashed my face with water I looked at my reflection. A small hickey cropped close to the neckline of my t-shirt. I wrapped a light scarf around my neck before leaving my apartment, but touched the spot almost constantly throughout the day, though unintentionally. When I’d realize what I was doing, a bittersweet feeling stung me and I’d shake it immediately, making sure to tuck it away like the remnants of a tattered letter, read so many times the paper became fabric soft and warm in the places it was held.
I thought of all the ways it would’ve ended as I taught myself to forget. I knew it was for the best, that it would’ve killed me to put up a fight for someone that god damn beautiful. Letting go is the purest form of heartache, the only kind that forces you to smile without spite. We can recognize this weight because we will all be in the ground one day and, having loved or otherwise, could not know each other’s bones.
But I remember his face as he stepped out of my car and into the night, and the effort it took to put my foot on the pedal. He shot a look that told me Robert Frost was right, that nothing gold can stay. I understood the weight a single night could carry, and all I could think was,
“I could never tell you, but you were probably perfect.”