I’m going to tell you a secret, but you must promise not to tell. This is a secret of
forbidden love. Impossible love. A fierce, fleeting, fiery love. The kind of love that burns you
alive and swallows you in a sea so deep you’ll drown long before you reach the bottom. This is
the secret of a love that spans two worlds. Well, spanned. Past tense. Because this is real life, and
love like that grows too big too fast, like a cancer outgrowing its blood supply. It overwhelms
itself, and it dies from the inside out.
I spent a summer with a man who set my skin on fire. He sparked me to life and made
me feel like life was beautiful, worth living. Sitting on a damp park bench overlooking a ravine,
we talk about music, movies, art. Wispy clouds obscure the stars, keeping me from pointing out
constellations. Lightning splits the sky behind his head, the low rumble of the thunder follows.
“You keep missing the lightning!” I complain. It was his idea to come watch the storm to
“Well, I would look at it, but that’s hard because I can’t look anywhere but at you.”
Our eyes lock, and I know that I couldn’t be anywhere else but this moment. I couldn’t be
anywhere but on this bench with this man who intrigued me, excited me, terrified me. I breathe
in sharply, the cool midnight air tastes fresh, like rain. His cold eyes are beautiful, but it’s not my
favorite part of him. It’s his strong, angled jaw and chin that comes to an exotic point. And then
there’s his smile. The hard line of his mouth usually matches his broodish expression, but on
occasion, it cracks to reveal a boyish grin, with teeth so white and straight you’d be sure he’d had
braces — he told me he hadn’t (superior genetics, he’d say).
He kissed me that night, burning his imprint on my lips and on my soul.
He was my lifeblood that summer. He worked night shifts, so I would sleep with my
phone right by my face. He’d text me when he’d have a moment to himself, the shrill chime
rousing me from shallow slumber. Heavy lidded and dazed, I’d squint at the illuminated screen
and clumsily type a response (which upon later review were rarely free of egregious typos and
grammatical atrocities). I’d smile giddily, roll back over in a pseudo hope of sleep, when really
all I wanted was to be woken up again.
I spot his silver Audi on the unfamiliar street and join him on the front step. He’s agreed
to house-sit for a week. Along with the house comes the added bonus of two dogs: Joey, a
twenty-odd pound smelly mix with a curly white coat, and Toby, a massive slobbery mess of a
beast with a wrinkled face and a bobbed tail. He holds a thick leather fob with a single silver key
on the ring. But as he turns the key in the padlock, nothing happens. Wrong key. We try every
door we can find, eventually ending up on the back porch. Still, the key is useless. Great, the
dogs are going to starve to death. The cogs of my brain start turning, trying to stitch together a
solution. Sensing my distress, he looks at me, shrugs and says, “Well, I guess all we can do now
is dance.” He wraps an arm around my back and takes my other hand. I let him lead for a few
steps, but soon I’m aware of my exposure. I am vulnerable, weak. My mind fizzles, I panic.
“Stop, you’re being crazy!” I tease, pushing him away. The cold stab of regret pierces through
the both of us like an icicle to the gut. I want to reach for him, to pull him back. But the moment
slips through my fingertips, leaving me grasping at smoke.
Whenever I go home for the summer my parents become convinced I’m fourteen years
old. They want to know where I am, who I’m with, what I’m doing, and when I’ll be back.
Every. Single. Day. They incessantly hover, sure that if they lengthen the leash I’ll strangle
myself. What they don’t understand is they’re already choking me with it.
“What time is it?”
He rolls over to check his phone. I’ve left mine downstairs in his entryway, on top of a
hand carved wooden sculpture of an emaciated man with a cane. The face is grotesque,
disproportionate, twisted. Limbs bend at unnatural angles, unconvincingly supporting his frame.
The top is sanded flat to give it function. His mother had made it, he told me. Relics of his
childhood speckle the space —a framed candid photo on the wall, a red paper origami light
fixture, and that sculpture. It reminds me of the homunculus. I hate the thing.
“It’s 3:00 a.m.” My blood runs cold. I am SO dead.
“No it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
I spring to the edge of the couch, pulling myself together. I told my parents I’d be home in
half an hour. That was three hours ago. I scour the dark room for my purse, my jacket, my other
shoe. I pull him down the narrow staircase with me, as if his presence will soften the impending
doom awaiting me. Sure enough, my phone has all but burst with texts, calls, and voicemails.
The most recent reads, “I’ve called the police. Dad is out looking for you.” Perfect.
His mouth curves into a cocky smile, and he stifles a laugh. He’s not sorry. That smile
tells me he’d do it all over again. So would I.
“What’s your middle name?” We’re lying on his bed, the only light in the room an
exposed bulb without a lampshade perched on a bookshelf. My head rests on his chest, our
bodies forming a “T.” I stare at the popcorn ceiling, imagining rabbits and dragons in the chaos.
“David.” He replies, absentmindedly fingering a lock of my hair.
“After your dad?” I’ve only ever heard about his mom and sister.
“No.” His response is cold, too quick. I don’t ask any more questions.
We sit cross legged on the unmade bed, a white porcelain bowl between us. We alternate
taking bites of cheesecake and ice cream, his phone plays a song he saved for me. His eyes are
tired; I know he’s having trouble sleeping again.
“So, I was talking about you to my ex-Mormon coworker today. He asked if you’re going
to try and convert me.” My ears prickle, I lower the spoon. I don’t look up.
“Oh yeah? What did you say?” I start fidgeting with the cheesecake. The crust mixes with
the filling, turning the stark black and white slice into grey speckled mush. We hadn’t talked
much about religion—it’s a topic I usually shy away from. I don’t want to ask him to change for
me. I’m afraid he’ll say no, almost as much as I’m afraid he’ll say yes. He moves the bowl to the
bedside table, slides both arms around me.
“I told him I guess it depends on how much she likes me.” He looks at me expectantly,
awaiting my response. I smile, drape my arms around his neck and kiss him. I hope it is enough.
When someone shows you their soul, chances are it won’t be all at once. It will be in little
pieces: a goofy grin. Playing with a dog. Using silly, outdated words like spoof or pizzazz or
conundrum. Curious observations about seemingly mundane happenings of life. The sparkle in
their eyes when they show you something they love. Sharing their music. They’ll disassemble
the walls they’ve built around themselves, brick by brick. Those moments are precious gifts,
wrapped in layers of their innermost parts and tied tight with their very own heartstrings. If you
aren’t looking, you’ll probably miss it.
Summer grew old and began to wither. The sun seemed to hurtle to its death each day,
stealing daylight, stealing precious time. The sky twists and screams, peppering the roof with fat,
heavy raindrops. My hair is still damp from running with him in the storm. He knows how much
I love summer rain.
We only have a few more days.
“Let’s just leave tomorrow. Where do you want to go?” His thumbs work against his
phone, searching destinations. I sigh, curling up closer to him on the couch. My eyes are heavy. I
can’t remember the last time I slept. My breathing slows as I drift. He stops typing.
“I’ve never felt this way about anyone.” He tells the room.
We sit there quietly, listening to the clouds weep. It is in small moments like this that I
see his soul most clearly. He, an impenetrable fortress of steely grit, shrugs out of his coat of
armor. He, the ever nonchalant and level-headed, tears off his mask to reveal his glorious face
and his gentle, golden heart. We’ve lured each other out of our castles of solitude, only to find
that neither of us knows what to do now that we’re both in the open. Guilt nips at my ankles.
What had we gotten ourselves into?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was going to happen.” I whisper, to keep my voice from
“Don’t be. It gives me hope that it’s really out there. That it exists, you know? People feel
this way. For real. It’s not just made up.” I soak up the silence, letting his words hang in the air.
He clears his throat.
“So, Japan? Great. What’s your middle name? I’m booking us tickets.”
I stand on the corner of the street, arms wrapped around myself. The bass from the
concert rattles in my chest, even though I’m over a block away. I glance around again, eyes
catching the leers of passersby. He told me he was coming, that he’d meet me here. I triple check
the street sign, growing more irritated every moment I spend waiting. My sock slips off my heel
into the deep recesses of my low tops, impossible to retrieve without removing the shoe. I work
my jaw. Last straw. I’m going back to the party and my friends. If he cared he would have come
with me tonight, not met me on a street corner. I spin on my heels, determined to salvage the rest
of the night. He’s leaning against a light post, waiting for me to turn around and see him. He’s
still in a white dress shirt, but the top two buttons are undone. He must have ditched his tie in the
car. His eyes meet mine, and every ounce of my cold fury melts away. His stony expression
crumbles, revealing that gentle soul he keeps carefully tucked away especially for me. He smiles,
offers his hand.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
Of course, I take it.
“I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay.”
“You know I can’t. I have to go.”
“When will you come back?”
He pauses, his face deep in thought. His brows knit together, and his head nods slightly.
“Okay, yeah. Six weeks. We can figure that out.”
I had to be serious, to think of my future. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to me. My
heart sinks, splitting at the seams. I know I’m going to leave him behind.
He tells me how much he cares, how he’s waited so long to feel this way about another
person. He tells me he’s fallen for me, and he can’t believe how fast it happened. He tells me
everything I want to hear, everything I want to say. He asks me to stay. My head and my heart
fought fiercely, fearlessly. My head rattled with reminders of plans, deadlines, expectations. My
heart, my champion of adventure, ached for that curiously complex soul that despite all our
differences, sang to mine. I will myself to come clean, to be honest and to tell him even a shred
of how I feel.
My throat tightens. I choke.
“I think it’s best if you find someone new.” The words are bitter on my tongue. I hate
every one of them.
“But I don’t want someone new. I want to be with you.”
“Just come meet me. Please come, and we’ll talk. We’ll get it all figured out. Meet me at
the bench, we can go back to where it all started.” The message stares back at me through the
screen, begging me to be brave, to go to him, to finish what we began. “I can’t. I’m not packed,
and I leave early tomorrow. I’m sorry.” It’s a pathetic lie, and I know it. I’m running, afraid to
face him. The text flies from my phone like a bullet. I know it’s going to hurt him. The gnawing
pain of regret sinks its teeth in me, and silent mascara stained tears stream down my cheeks.
When you fall for someone, you lose bits of yourself on your way down. The nice part is
when they fall too, the pieces you lose are replaced by pieces of them. We are mosaics of those
we have loved and those who have loved us.
Maybe in another life things would have been different. A life where every decision isn’t
caught in a web of what-ifs, where duty and expectation didn’t clip my wings. A life spent
drinking in precious moments instead of being tangled up in tomorrows. If I could rewrite a
single chapter in the book of my life, it would be the one with him in it. There is a special,
especially potent brand of regret reserved for the things left unsaid, unfinished. Perhaps it would
be fairer to say I would revise our chapter. Even if we were fated to meet the same end, I would
do it all again, but I’d let my soul run wild with his. I would have danced a little longer with him
on that porch, and stayed a little later all the nights we planned the adventures we’d have
together. I would have hugged him tighter, kissed him longer. I would have told him how I felt
that August afternoon. I would have met him that last night on our bench. I would have been
honest with him. I would have been honest with myself. A part of me will always live in that
summer and will always love him for igniting my soul and feeding the flame. Those embers still
glow, impossible to snuff out. Even after all this time, when our paths cross, I’m swallowed
whole by memories.