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I HAVE ONE of the dreams. There are only three; two are beautiful, one is violent, but all of them leave me shivering and alone.
The one I have tonight is about my husband. It goes something like this:
I could say he kissed my neck, and leave it like that, simplicity. But that would be a lie, in the most basic way that the word was created to mean.
It would be more truthful to say that I yearned for him to kiss my neck, with every molecule of my being, with every last, burning inch of me, and that when he did, his lips were the lips of an angel, sent from heaven to answer my fevered prayers.
I was seventeen then, and so was he. It was a time when there was no blandness or darkness. There was only passion, sharp edges, and a light that burned so hard it hurt the soul. He leaned forward in the darkness of the movie theater and (Oh God) he hesitated for just a moment and (Oh God) I quivered on a precipice but pretended to be calm, and Oh God Oh God Oh God he kissed my neck, and it was heaven, and I knew right then and there that I would be with him forever.
He was my one. Most people, I know, never find their one. They read about it, dream about it, or scoff at the idea. But I found mine, I found him when I was seventeen, and I never let him go, not even the day he lay dying in my arms, not even when death ripped him from me as I screamed, not even now.
God's name these days means suffering: Oh God Oh God Oh GodI miss him so.
I wake with the ghost of that kiss on my flushed seventeen-year-old skin, and realize that I am not seventeen, and that he has stopped aging at all. Death has preserved him at the age of thirty-five, forever. To me, he is always seventeen years old, always leaning forward, always brushing my neck in that perfect moment.
I reach over to the spot he should be sleeping in, and I am pierced with a pain so sudden and blinding that I pray as I shiver, pray for death and an end to pain. But of course, I go on breathing, and soon, the pain lessens.
I miss everything about him being in my life. Not just the good things. I miss his flaws as achingly as I miss the beautiful parts of him. I miss his impatience, his anger. I miss the patronizing look he would give me sometimes when I was mad at him. I miss being annoyed by the fact he'd always forget to fill the gas tank, leaving it near empty when I was ready to go somewhere.
This is the thing, I think often, that never occurs to you when you consider what it would be like to lose someone you love. That you would miss not just the flowers and kisses, but the totality of the experience. You miss the failures and little evils with as much desperation as you miss being held in the middle of the night. I wish he were here now, and I was kissing him. I wish he were here now, and I was betraying him. Either would be fine, so fine, as long as he was here. People ask sometimes, when they get up the courage, what it's like to lose someone you love. I tell them it's hard, and leave it at that.
I could tell them that it's a crucifixion of the heart. I could say that most days after, I screamed without stopping, even as I moved through the city, even with my mouth closed, even though I didn't make a sound. I could tell them I have this dream, every night, and lose him again, every morning.
But, hey, why ruin their day? So I tell them it's hard. That usually seems to satisfy them. This is just one of the dreams, and it gets me out of bed, shaking.
I stare at the empty room, and then turn to the mirror. I have learned to hate mirrors. Some would say that this is normal. That all of us do this, put ourselves under the microscope of self-reflection and focus on the flaws. Beautiful women create fret and worry lines by looking for those very things. Teenage girls with beautiful eyes and figures to die for weep because their hair is the wrong color, or they think their nose is too big. The price of judging ourselves through others' eyes, one of the curses of the human race. And I agree.
But most people don't see what I see when I look into the mirror. When I look at myself, what I see is this:
I have a jagged scar, approximately one half inch wide, that begins in the middle of my forehead at my hairline. It shoots straight down, then turns at a near perfect ninety degree angle to the left. I have no left eyebrow; the scar has taken its place. It crosses my temple, where it then makes a lazy loop-de-loop down my cheek. It rips over toward my nose, crosses the bridge of it just barely, and then turns back, slicing in a diagonal across my left nostril and zooming one final time past my jawline, down my neck, ending at my collarbone.
It's quite an effect. If you look at me in right profile only, everything looks normal. You have to stare at me straight on to get the full picture.
Everyone looks in a mirror at least once a day, or sees their reflection in the eyes of others. And they know what to expect. They know what they will see, what will be seen. I no longer see what I expect to see. I have the reflection of a stranger, staring out of a mask I can't take off. When I stand naked in front of the mirror, as I am now, I can see the rest of it. I have what can only be called a necklace of cigar-sized circular scars, going from under one side of my collarbone to the next. More of the same traverse my breasts, go down across my sternum and stomach, ending just above my pubic hair.
The scars are cigar-sized because a cigar is what made them.
If you can put all of that aside, things look pretty good. I'm small, four foot ten inches tall. I'm not skinny, but I am in shape. My husband used to call it a "lush" figure. After my mind, heart, and soul, he used to say, he married me for my "mouth-sized boobs and my heart-shaped ass." I have long, thick, dark, curly hair that hangs down to just above said ass.
He used to love that too.
It is hard for me to look past those scars. I've seen them a hundred times, maybe a thousand. They are still all I see when I look into the mirror.
They were put there by the man who killed my husband and my daughter. Who was later killed by me.
I feel a broad emptiness rush into me thinking about this. It's huge, dark, and absolutely nerveless.
Like sinking into numb Jell-o.
No big deal. I'm used to it.
That's just how my life is now.
I sleep for no more than ten minutes, and I know that I won't be sleeping again tonight. I remember waking up a few months ago in the middle hours, just like this. That time between 3:30 and 6:00 a.m., when you feel like the only person on earth if you happen to be up then. I'd had one of the dreams, as always, and knew I wasn't going to be getting back to sleep.
I pulled on a T-shirt and some sweatpants, slipped on my battered sneakers, and headed out the door. I ran and ran and ran in the night, ran till my body was slick with sweat, till it soaked my clothes and filled those sneakers, and then I ran some more. I wasn't pacing myself, and my breath was coming out fast. My lungs felt scarred by the coolness of that early-morning air. I didn't stop, though. I ran faster, legs and elbows pumping, running as fast as I could, reckless.
I ended up in front of one of those convenience stores that fill the Valley, over by the curb, gagging and hacking up stomach acid. A couple of other early-morning ghosts looked over at me, then looked away. I stood up, wiped my mouth, and slammed through the front door of the store.
"I want a pack of cigarettes," I said to the proprietor, still gulping in air.
He was an older man, in his fifties, who looked Indian to me.
"What kind do you want?"
The question startled me. I hadn't smoked in years. I looked at the rows behind him, my eyes catching the once-beloved Marlboros.
He got me the pack and rang it up. Which is when I realized I was in sweats and had no money. Instead of being embarrassed, I was, of course, angry.
"I forgot my purse." I said it with my chin jutted out, defiant. Daring him to not give me the cigarettes or to make me feel ridiculous in any way.
He looked at me for a moment. It was, I guess, what writers would call a "pregnant pause." He relaxed.
"You've been running?" he asked.
"Yeahrunning from my dead husband. Better than killing yourself, I guess, ha ha!"
The words came out sounding funny to my ears. A little loud, a little strangled. I suppose I was a little crazy. But instead of getting the flinch or look of discomfort I so wanted from him at that moment, his eyes went soft. Not with pity, but with understanding. He nodded. He reached across the counter, holding the pack of cigarettes out for me to take.
"My wife die in India. One week before we were supposed to come to America. You take the cigarettes, pay me next time."
I stood there for a moment, staring at him. And then I snatched those cigarettes and ran out of there as fast as I could, before the tears started rolling down my cheeks. I clutched that pack of cigarettes and ran home weeping.
The place is a little out of my way, but I never go anywhere else now when I want to smoke.
I sit up now and smile a little as I find the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand, and think of the guy at the store as I light up. I guess a part of me loves that little man, in the way you can only love a stranger who shows you a kindness so perfect at a time when you need it the most. It's a deep love, a pang in the heart, and I know that even if I never know his name, I'll remember him till the
day I die.
I inhale, a nice deep lungful, and regard the cigarette, its perfect cherry tip as it glows in the dark of my bedroom. This, I think, is the insidiousness of the cursed things. Not the nicotine addiction, though that's surely bad enough. But the way a cigarette just fits in certain places. Morning dawns with a steaming cup of coffee. Or lonely nights in a house filled with ghosts. I know I should give them up again, before they get their claws all the way back into me, but I also know I won't. They are all I have right now, a reminder of a kindness, a comfort and a source of strength, all rolled into one.
I exhale and watch the smoke billow, caught here and there by little currents of air, floating and then disappearing. Like life, I think. Life is smoke, plain and simple; we just fool ourselves that it's otherwise. All it takes is one good gust and we float away and disappear, leaving behind only the scent of our passing in the form of memories.
I cough suddenly, laughing at all the connections. I'm smoking, life is smoke, and my name is Smoky. Smoky Barrett. My real name, given to me because my mother thought it "sounded cool." This makes me cackle in the dark, in my empty house, and I think as I laugh (as I have before) just how crazy laughter sounds when you're laughing alone.
This gives me something to think about for the next three or four hours. Being crazy, I mean. Tomorrow is the day, after all.
The day when I decide if I go back to work for the FBI or come home, put a gun in my mouth, and blow my brains out.
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