He’s nervous when he sees her. He doesn’t know what to say, whether she wants him to talk to her or whether she figures he’d be better off crawling in a hole and never speaking again. Perhaps he wants to say something. Something profound. Perhaps all he wants to say is “hello”, but he doesn’t even know how to get that far. Perhaps his heart is breaking.
It could be that every time he hears her name in conversation, he looks away. He’s learned to control the flush of his cheeks and the slight grimace, but he still can’t make eye contact with someone too soon after her name comes up. Eventually, he will learn to just carry on as if it’s someone he doesn’t know.
And really, is that so far from the truth?
Most everyone has learned to just not talk about her when he’s around. It makes them uncomfortable. His discomfort makes them uncomfortable. Many of them are hedonists, and their concern for others is shallow at best; conniving at worst. Some of them are narcissists, though, and their status depends on everyone holding them in at least as high esteem as that in which they hold themselves. Seeing him uncertain, seeing him …in pain… it reminds them that somewhere, somewhere deep down inside, they should have emotions. They should really have emotions. They’re also very, very clever, though, and so they learn fairly quickly that it’s easier not to mention her than to try to navigate the choppy waters of their own stunted emotional tributaries.
He remembers the way he used to look at her; the way they used to share a thought through eye contact. He can do that with some other people, but he doesn’t like to, because it means he’s getting close to them. After what’s happened with her, the very last thing he wants is to get too close. Romance is one thing, but love fucking hurts.
There are very few days that pass in which thoughts of her don’t cross his mind. He’d probably be surprised if he really thought about how much he thinks about her. Most are fleeting memories, like the way a park bench makes no sense without her sitting beside him on it; he goes so far as to avoid parks entirely. But sometimes, the thoughts are more invasive. Like how she would love the conversation he’s having because it’s ridiculous. Those thoughts hit him hard, right at the base of the throat, and he often finds himself excusing himself to the porch to have a cigarette alone with the sky, smoke twisting through his rumpled hair.
He sees little things, little trinkets or gewgaws, and he knows instinctually which she would carry with her or fasten to her shoulder strap and which she would place on the shelves in her kitchen so she could see them every day. Because the whatnots and trifles he found for her, even in the street or in a field, reminded her of him, she said. The last time they sat together in the sun, she’d laughed when he’d handed her a bead and a bauble, because the story, he’d said, the story is what made him think of her. She was always lost with her head in a world that no one else could quite access.
Perhaps it was that part of her nature that drew him to her.
There are many chances for him to strike up a conversation, but he doesn’t take them. He finds himself frozen on the precipice of indecision. He is afraid she will tell him what he suspects – that the space in her heart that was him-shaped isn’t him-shaped any longer. He avoids the places he knows she will be, unsure whether he could make eye contact without feeling a flash of anger and low-grade panic.
He still collects things for her. He has a drawer full of curios, each of which made him think of her when he found it: a vial of sand, a pressed red leaf, a spherical charm, packets of artificial sweetener, a rail spike. He wonders if she has a similar collection. Perhaps she has gathered up all of the ornaments he gave her and keeps them put away, in a box, under a cabinet, where she won’t have to look at them. Perhaps she doesn’t want to think of him at all anymore.
It’s the not knowing that eats at him. Not knowing whether they could even still …communicate at all. He’s still not entirely sure what happened, in the end. One day he could still sense her there, and the next, she was gone. Or perhaps it was more of a gradual floating away, like a tiny origami boat set adrift on an ocean swell; you can watch it float away until you realize you don’t remember the last time you saw it. He thinks it’s more like the origami boat, really, and that makes his throat clench up again because the thought that someone could just drift away from you without you even knowing it is horrifying. What if everyone is slowly moving away from you, like planets and stars gently drifting further and further apart until they break gravity and float off directionless, rudderless, for the rest of time? What if you don’t know what’s happening until it’s done and then everyone you’ve ever loved is just suddenly
What if she actually just replaced him? What if everything she ever told him was a lie? Perhaps not a lie. Maybe she meant every word of it when she said it. He remembers that she used to say things like “every moment we live is a moment that is gone, in an instant.” It’s the kind of thing she said kept her honest. So what if he was just something instantaneous to her? What if everything they shared was just some transcendent transient fucking joke? He tries to get angry again, but his anger is all used up.
All he feels now is intense and bitter sadness. He mourns the loss of her, as if she’d died. He knows things about her because he hears things about her – not as many since the others decided they didn’t like feeling awkward and simply stopped talking about her in his presence, but still, she isn’t gone. She’s gone from his life, but she’s still *out there*. She’s still *somewhere*.
Somehow, that hurts even more.
He stares at her name on the screen and considers tapping out ‘hello’. His fingers cramp. His brow furrows. It’s just ‘hello’. The party inside carries on – a series of moments that are gone as soon as they begin. He closes his eyes, runs his hand through his hair, and drops his phone into his pocket. He lights another cigarette and tries to find Cassiopeia shining dimly through the yellow sulphur streetlamps’ glow.