In a dream he takes a seat in the back row of a meeting room lined with folding chairs. He counts eight people including himself, none of whom he knows. He has no idea why he is here but there are too many chairs for so few people and for some reason, this makes him feel claustrophobic. He wants to hide, to render himself invisible. The mood seems desperate and despairing, although he is not sure if these are his feelings amplified.
Behind him is a large rectangular table overcrowded with huge silver coffee dispensers, plates mounded with donuts and towers of white Styrofoam cups. Someone in the front of the room says, ‘welcome’, but he can’t make out what else is being said. The speaker has his back to one of the large front windows which opens suddenly onto a moonlit ocean. Shadowed figures embrace then vanish as waves crash against an imaginary shoreline. He tries to get up from his seat but can’t move.
A large framed poster hangs on a wall. White words against a stark black background, ‘We must understand life backwards but strive to live it forwards’.
A woman enters the room and sits next to him. He notices she has been crying.
She says, “everyone tells me I look great. I’ve been crying for a month. How can I look great?”
He looks at her and says that maybe she is crying out her pain. Maybe what they see is relief. He looks at her and says, “maybe they can see what you have done for love”.
“What does that matter,” she says and places a hand on her chest. “In here is an emptiness that makes me feel like I don’t exist.”
He knows she did not place this emptiness there herself, it is not her fault; the same way it is not his. Empty comes as a by-product of life. Disappointment. Heartbreak. Loss. Over time, what is lost in barely noticeable increments and he wants to tell all of this to the woman but she is gone now and he stands at the entrance to a park not far from where he used to live, in a house where nothing bad ever seemed to happen. But he knows he has nowhere to go, has a vague idea something horrible has taken place in his life.
He lies beneath a tree. There is warmth and comfort and a feeling that connects and separates him from everything.
He feels love as a stabbing ache and fears it will slice him in two.
He wakes from the dream to find himself alone in the park.
The feeling is with him still, threading itself through every fiber; all too familiar, all too encompassing. He tries to use his mind to distract it. To throw it off the scent. But it resists and in the end he must retreat and watch the surface from deep within the corridors and chambers of his secret heart.
It begins because her life has been reduced to the basics. Food and shelter. It has been this way for awhile but she tries to accept and cope and believe in the simplicity of it.
It begins with a meal. A gesture. An offering made for the man in the park in her tiny, as she refers to it, ‘anti-kitchen’. Constructed against one wall of the studio – less than a kitchenette, more than a hotplate – a counter, small sink, two electric burners and box fridge. The kind you would find in a college dorm room.
As so many things in life do, it begins with a list. Pinto beans. Cheese. Yogurt.
There is one grocery store still open here. The others closed along with the manufacturing plants, leaving a scattering of empty houses and lifeless shop fronts.
Onions. Lettuce. Avocado.
She no longer has a car but the walk isn’t long. On the corner is a coffee shop, jazz music spikes and falls from the open door. A man and woman sit at a picnic bench outside drinking espresso and eating little cakes. She thinks they are fortunate to be able to afford simple luxuries and again of the man in the park and wonders how he came to live there.
There are only a few people, the die-hards, shopping today. Most can go to the suburbs for supplies. A woman clutching a box of crackers and jar of peanut butter to her chest shuffles by quickly in a thin robe and backless slippers.
In aisle two she reaches to the top shelf for a bottle of oil. She is not paying attention and her foot hits a hand basket abandoned on the dirty floor. In it sits a lonely box of macaroni and cheese and she feels an urgent pang of regret or loss, she isn’t sure which, and is plunged into a fuzzy memory. The boy she once loved and his sink filled with greasy dishes. Hardened orange elbow macaroni in a pot on the stove. It seemed to be all he ever ate. He was not without money, he could afford to buy food but didn’t. The memory demands her attention. The interrogating fluorescent lighting above flickers with a thousand questions. The image and the sound linger, submerging her in a familiar, groundless feeling.
She escapes quickly to the vegetable section where someone plucks the last of the peppers. She searches for a lettuce that isn’t brown, tomatoes that aren’t soft. She manages to find both plus a cucumber and an onion. The only barely-working fridge is sparse and stale with blocks of cheese, a few single yogurts and a package of luncheon meat. At the checkout the usual cashier stares through her making no contact as he hands back the change.
The park is near the University. The man sleeps in a car without wheels, beneath a large tree, away from the entrance. The car was an installation, part of a summer Art Festival connected to the University. For reasons unknown, they left it there when the festival was over.
Some days she walks through the park but she hadn’t seen him before. Then one day he is there, sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open reading a book. He does not ask for money nor does he speak.
She passes slowly, thinking she might say something but not sure what it would be. She sees a handsome face just beneath this worn out replacement. A face she is sure once had a job and home; maybe even a lover. She begins constructing a world for him. One in which he gets back on his feet, this mistaken identity with its tangle of long hair and frayed clothes falling away. It was only a bad dream he was having. He looks up and she sees the cover of the book, a philosophy about fear and regret and love written long ago.
At the same time he constructs a world in which she is his. In his life before he made many mistakes. Mistakes that nearly broke him but mostly mistakes with women. A kaleidoscope of women shifting and changing through the years. He fears that he has never truly known love or companionship or kindness in his life. He dreams of finding these things. He senses her willing innocence. That she is not afraid and that makes him yearn to reconcile all that has come before.
She sees him again a few days later with a rag in his hand, wiping down the sides of the car. There is something orderly about this man. Something intentional.
“I’d like to bring you some food,” she says without thinking. Inside the car is a sleeping bag and bare pillow neatly arranged on the back seat. A thick blanket and a small cardboard box next to that. On the passenger seat a short stack of books, a folded plastic sheet on the floor.
He doesn’t reply.
“Would you prefer I didn’t?” she asks, suddenly self-conscious; worried that she may have offended him in some way.
“Sorry,” he says. “Just. Most people ignore me.”
She finds out he used to have a job at one of the local cafes that closed a few years ago. He was a cook. Nothing fancy but he knows his way around a kitchen, he says. He finds out she comes from a place where the sea is wild and torn and the sky rains down in fits of passion. She describes herself as impulsive; her soul as restless. She traveled far before moving here. Now, she works part-time for a woman who makes clothes, stitching endlessly and methodically.
The day after the shopping trip she wraps two still warm burritos in foil and places them in the cardboard box she carried the groceries home in. Next to that a small plastic container of guacamole, another with homemade salsa and a tub of yogurt. A plate, fork, knife, spoon, napkins and bottle of water.
“You can cook,” he says as he takes the last bite.
“I like cooking.”
“Yeah. I get that.”
She wants to ask about his situation.
“I could cook for you sometime,” he offers as he places the empty plate into the box.
She isn’t sure what to say. Her heart would like to give her the words but she has grown wary of it. It has not always said the right things, has been only erratically trustworthy. Does he mean he would come to her apartment? Is that a good idea? She doesn’t know him. He doesn’t know her.
As if suddenly aware of her conflict he says, “or maybe not right now”. He hands back the box and thanks her. She takes it from him and smiles.
That night she can’t stop thinking about him. She tries to merge their two worlds, superimposing one onto the other only to have them separate, like the same sides of a magnet. At the core they are just two people. How odd that she feels unsettled. The fear that if she invites him he will not leave. Or more than this, she might not want him to leave. She wonders if he lives this way because of choice or because of circumstance and yet knows that this does not matter.
In a dream she walks with a different version of him, through the sand of a distant shoreline. He says, “I once had love but not in the way most people understand it”. They walk on in darkness. She stops and turns to him and out there the sea is as turbulent as her thoughts and the waves rise and fall, the wind surges and they embrace, clinging to each other as they tumble into the deep.
That night he thinks of the most remote places on earth, places he could go and become truly lost with no one but himself to worry about. He thinks of her. How unaware she is of herself; her lack of judgment and her kindness and this pulls back the shroud of his fear. And in doing so, the thought illuminates the corridors, fills the chambers of his secret heart making it long to be seen.
He has placed his sleeping bag outside on the ground and looks up at the stars and chooses one believing that in a different life, he might be able to pluck it from the sky and give it to her.
‘Love Will Not Break Us’ (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved