“Surprised to see me again?” Kim says.
I hesitate at the door. Paper wasps had built a nest in the corner of the brick underpass leading to my ground floor apartment in Levittown. Anyone standing at the door stirs them up, so I part my threshold and invite her to follow.
Kim slips into the living room. Under her arm, she carries a linen bag imprinted with a pink seashell. I smell her honeysuckle perfume, and I nearly reach to play with the length of blond hair trickling down her neck. She remembered honeysuckle as my favorite, but the sour reek of the cigarette smoke clings to her hair, skin, violating the sweet fragrance. I offer my hand to take her bag. She hands me the strap, and I set it between the coffee table and the couch. I glimpse inside, seeing a couple changes of clothes, toiletries, a bag filled with orange pill bottles.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I ask her.
“You said if I ever needed a place to crash—”
She wraps her arms around my chest, pressing her lips, nose, eyes to my sternum, searching for my heart. I’m trembling. Buried sparrows stir awake. I break from the embrace. I’m not ready for it.
She sags her shoulders, deflated. She wears new glasses with a wiry frame, the lenses thicker.
“Thought you’d be happy to see me,” she says.
“It’s been—” I count the time. The last time she’d showed up at my door with luggage in hand was just after my hair had grown back, all curly after my chemotherapy.
“About three years.”
“I know I didn’t treat you very well. I don’t deserve your kindness.”
She’s projecting the speech. She’s practiced it, going through the rituals of return, of apologies and pleadings for forgiveness, which she knew I’d grant and allow her entrance.
“No god made us out of mud,” I say. “No one’s perfect.”
She looks so small and lost, eyes cast out on ocean tide. She’s searching for a home. The old hope comes back in me, the longing that flooded me over these years that should have receded but couldn’t because of the way she just vanished. Her eyes perk up.
“I’ve missed you,” she says.
“I just can’t.”
She slips her car keys from her jean shorts’ pocket. She reaches for the linen bag.
“Kim,” I say. “Wait. Give me a minute. I wasn’t expecting this today.”
“It’s fine. I’ll go.”
I run my fingers through my mess of fair curls, brushing it away from forehead. My blood pressure drops, turning the world awkward. I’ve still not gained back the weight after my long run of radiation, and I lean on the end of the couch, waiting for my balance to return.
She reaches to play in my curls.
“Your hair,” she says. “You look so adorable.”
“Please sit down. I’ll put the kettle on.”
She flutters onto the couch like a leaf falling from a mulberry tree. She takes a scrunchie from her bag, wraps the length of fair hair down her neck into a tail. I collect myself and slip into the kitchen. I take a moment to catch my breath, to regain my equilibrium. I set the teapot on the gas burner then set out two cups. I fill them each with a bag of earl grey tea.
“Still so English,” she says.
“Hey now. Scottish.”
“Oh yes,” she says. “Where all the heroes come from.”
I return to the living room and sit in the rocking chair, the furthest seat from the couch. She frowns seeing me so far away.
“You were always my hero,” she says.
She’s winding me up, must be in some kind of trouble. Or maybe she just missed me. She’ll stay this time. I won’t wake up to an empty bed in a week, the length of the sheet still warm from her body. I slept on her spot for a month, trying to draw the warmth from the sheet, refusing to wash it to keep her scent.
“I’m no one’s hero.”
“I’ve seen you in the newspaper,” she says. “All the work you’re doing with victims of violence, rape. I have all the articles in a scrapbook.”
She’s referring to the non-profit agency I founded before I started chemotherapy. After my success over a rare lymphoma, I continued the work that had been meant to be continued posthumously, creating public events to educate and support victims, to let people know they’re not alone.
I close my eyes, turn my face from the sunlight assailing through the sliding, patio “The stuff I’ve seen, Kim. I can’t believe in an omnipotent deity anymore. We’ve got to be alone.”
She comes over to me from the couch, kneels down at my side, taking my hand through the spokes of the rocking chair.
“I know I’m never alone,” she says, kissing my fingers. I let her. She moves her lips up the back of my hand, to the wrist and the arm, kissing the flesh that had been torn and ripped with needles, burning the veins. She feels like ice relieving my fevered skin.
I gently pull my hand from her touch.
“I can’t. You disappear for three years, not even saying goodbye. I worry. I don’t know where you are. Then you just show up and expect me to love you?”
“Mine never stopped.”
“You don’t know me anymore,” I say. “So much of me is lost now. Gods Kim.
The things I’ve seen and fought. And it was all for you.”
Her eyes flinch, perplexed.
The motivation behind my work had only just come to me now, looking upon my lost one, still trying to help her, somehow, someway, so far away. From her I had learned of anguish, of the futility of good intentions. I’d failed to hold onto her. She’d slipped away, and I’d spent years cycling through my loss trying to heal her from afar—and fix myself.
The kettle keens. I get up from the chair, careful not to catch her body in the rocker.
“Scottish,” I say.
“My bonny hero.”
I sigh along with the steaming tea I’m pouring.
“Stay the night then, but on the couch.”
Palm reading at high school proved to be a great way to meet people—learned from library books and improvised. That fall, in my adolescence, I enjoyed the attention of the class, especially the young women. My gravely voice, my accent had been intimidating in earlier years, but as we progressed as Juniors, the women found it attractive, alluring. My world changed.
Kim sat behind me in math class, this china doll blond, so small I could lift her over my head. Her body sometimes reminded me of a toy, and I wondered how she could get about on such a tiny, frail design.
I read everyone’s palm but hers. I kept waiting for her to ask. She shied away. Finally, one day I asked her. Nervously, she extended her palm. I strummed the crevices in her palm, the threads of her future, her past, plucking them like a guitar. I searched for myself in her future among the folds of skin. So many creases intersected her heart line. I read them as hurt. Her hand trembled in mine.
“You sometimes feel like you’re not real, just a dream. You’re a bubble floating in the ocean.”
Her eyes shot to mine.
“Why did you say that?”
“I’m…not sure. I’m kind of a poet.”
She looked down at her palm.
“How long am I going to live?”
I measured the short crease. In my studies, I was told that a decade measured about a centimeter, in proportion to the size of the hand of course. Her hand trembled in my grasp. I couldn’t tell her what I saw. It was all lunacy anyway.
“Forever and ever as long as I hold your hand,” I said.
She grinned. She slipped her hand away to push her glasses up her puppet nose. I played in the tall grass of her green eyes, and she laid beneath the cerulean skies of mine.
That August, after a year of close friendship, she phoned me from her family’s townhouse to tell me she was in love with me. A few days later we walked through the woods, through the milkweed fluff blowing in the wind and over the canals. I plucked honeysuckle tongues from the golden flowers growing along the bank.
“The scent makes me think summer will be forever,” I told her.
She’d taken to scenting herself with honeysuckle oil, to draw me to her.
We sat on a dock the canal’s edge, one I’d built over the last few years, next to a popular fire pit where my mates and I would meet on cold nights, light up a fire and enjoy a few beers, maybe roast hotdogs. Those were the best of my days. I wanted to take her to this clandestine place, my secret home where I’d come in the morning to watch the foxes. I’d felt kinship to foxes since I was young, and I would soon need to call on their strength.
“Mother and I had this big fight last night,” she said.
“Like most nights.”
She buried her face into my shirt, my vest. I took off my black sandals and dangled my feet in the water among the carp. The fish stirred, irritated that I’d agitated the still waters of their nest. They listened.
“She gets so mad. She says I don’t treat her like she’s really my mother. She isn’t my real mother.”
“I know, love,” I said, petting her soft, blond hair. She’d pulled it back under a hair band, exposing the length of her angled ears. She looked elven in the sunlight, a mythical sidhe. Though beautiful and dear to me, these features I’d discover were symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.
“My dad wants to join the army again, fly helicopters like he did in Vietnam. He said it was the only time he was really happy. Mother dear cried all night. She said her family is coming apart. I told her I wanted to find my real parents.”
“We can do that if you want. I have resources.”
“Remember me like this, today. Before it’s lost.”
I held her close. A cool wind left over of winter blew low through the wood, chilling the skin on my legs. I looked up into the trees, into the high tension power lines on the tower cutting through wood. Crows perched on the steel. They howled at the sun.
Six months later a lump grew under my ear, a golf ball. It manifested in twenty minutes. By then, I’d learned about Kim’s problem with alcohol. And when she got drunk, she’d cheat on me. First time, I forgave her, trying to be the hero, the one man in her life who’d be there for her.
She slipped further and further away, and finally from the hospital bed after my first chemo treatment, my hair falling out strand by strand on my pillows, I ended it. She sounded relieved.
Over the next few years, she’d return to my life for a few days, promise to stay forever, then she’d slip away before dawn, afraid of the revelations of the nascent light.
The night after she’d returned, she climbs into my single bed, too small for both of us. We didn’t mind. We knot tight, holding onto each other in the dark. My body twists with a ripping and burning in my nerves, side effects of the radiation to my spine, pain that I endured each night. She holds me tight and kisses my forehead.
“It’ll end soon my love,” she says.
She’s wearing my shirt detailing a fox hunting through ferns, too big for her, exposing her shoulders. Something thrills me so about my girl wearing one of my big T-shirts. It’s pulled up over her waist, exposing her white panties, the smooth run of her hips, legs. She curls them under my thighs, warming her feet. She strokes the soft, fair hair on my chest. She lifts my shirt and kisses up my stomach. I take it off, and she climbs onto my body. I wrap my legs around her, pulling her body tight onto mine. She slips off her shirt, reaching her arms into the air and tosses my fox shirt.
Naked on the flannel sheets, we move to a song rhythm known only to us, a rhythm I could always hear just in the background of my own thoughts and fought to ignore. I turn her over so she lay under me, running through the fields in her eyes—those clover eyes where I was lost again among the leaves and buds.
I brace my body to move into hers. I know if we make love, she’ll never leave—melting into each other, unite as one soul the way two candle flames merge into single fire when pressed in a kiss.
Her eyes flicker, change their desire, losing the warm wanting that drew me closer to her. I hold back. A raindrop drips down her right cheek. It sums the whole of woman’s suffering, an ocean in a diamond. I dare to reach to it, to dab it with my finger, pluck it from her flesh like tugging free a thorn. I withdraw my hand.
“I’m scared,” she says. “I’m so . . . please.”
I pull her head to my chest, cup it to my heart.
“It’s me,” I say. “It’s Timothy.”
She pants against my chest.
“Don’t be mad at me.”
“Kim,” I say. “Calm down.”
I hold her to my heart ‘till her breathing calms and she sleeps. I lay her head on the pillow next to mine. A poem she’d written that high school year comes to mind:
Hear him at the door.
Pretend to sleep. Don’t breathe.
Opens the door.
Don’t twitch. Don’t switch.
He closes the door.
Maybe he won’t hurt me tonight.
She goes to work the next day, dropping me off at the museum where I spend my days on the river, working with school children. She loves to watch me with the kids, with my flute, telling my stories as part of my nature program. Then we bring home dinner and watch old movies through the night.
She even talks about quitting smoking, asks if I’d help her. Then in the cool spring nights, we sleep like children tired from play.
One night I woke to find her sitting up in bed, staring into the darkness, reaching—not reaching, pushing something away. Her face retches, the skin taut at her eyes, forehead burrowed and knotted.
“Please don’t,” she says, pushing against the air with her tiny fingers.
My voice snaps her back. She never wakes from sleep. She lays her head on my pillow, her eyes fluttering open briefly, then shutting. She shakes, her body trembling in the sheets, rocking the mattress. I reach to pull her close, my arms seeking to protect, but she pulls away. She curves her back, exposed in the fox shirt. Her body at last settles. She slips into deeper sleep. I reach to hold her again, but I pull back, not wanting to disturb the peace of her sleep. I’m just grateful the nightmare has ended.
I lay in the dark, listening to the hypnotic groan of the fan. I could never sleep without the noise since I was a child growing up listening to the air filter in my bedroom.
I drift into sleep, and I’m ripped from my body. The zoetrope spins and sings of memories caught and distorted in the reel. They project always behind my eyes, my conscious thoughts, stumps from severed oaks. I have no strength to pull the roots. I dream.
I’m laying on the stainless steel table at the Radiation Oncology Department in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philly. My shirt is off. I’ve lost so much weight. My ribs look like a fence, the skin clinging tight to the spokes. I’m shaking with chill, the room like a butcher’s freezer. The metal of the table feels like a block of ice.
“The Five-and-Dime man,” I say, speaking of my nightmare totem. Nausea moves up through my stomach. I have to pinch it off.
A lab tech enters. She’s carrying the wax tongue made from the contours of my mouth. She fixes it to a metal arm hanging over my face from the table then lowers it. I lock on my jaw, my teeth finding the familiar holes. My nausea is cresting now with no way to suppress my gag reflex.
She rolls the table over to the linear accelerator. Its crimson face glows, hanging from a long neck. A laser crosshair fixes over the ink tattoos in my face, locking on. The lights shut off.
I gag on the wax tongue in my mouth.
The machine groans, its red face igniting. Metallic ozone invades my nose, aggravating the nausea. I can’t move. I must be still while the radiation treatment proceeds.
The machine burns me. God. Make them stop burning me.
I wake up, my eyes still shut, laying on my side, curled up to my love, reaching for her soft hair laying on my pillow. I fail to find the soft strands, the peach skin of her face. I reach for her, searching for her, perhaps lost among the sheets and quilt. Still, she is lost. I already know before I open my eyes. I don’t bother calling for her. I know she won’t hear me, probably left hours ago before the dawn, always leaving before the dawn.