Do you ever meet someone who’s so startlingly beautiful that you’re not quite sure you can handle it? Sure, we’ve all got those little adolescent crushes where your heart beats a mile a minute and your throat closes up and your mouth goes dry just before you can ask them how they’re doing, but I’m not that young anymore. Of course, when you’re any age love still feels the same, and the story stays the same.
When I was young, I met this beautiful girl by a lake. We spent the summer with our legs drifting off the sides of the pier, where there never seemed to be any boats to anchor or sail, and just talked. It must have been utter nonsense, because I can barely remember any of it. We were reading books at the same time, like we were going on adventures together. I still remember one of the curious little facts: “Unicorns are primarily found in warm tropical climates but have been known to travel as far north as New Hampshire in November to enjoy the changing colors of the evergreens.” Maybe it was the utter strangeness of the idea, or maybe it was that, while we were giggling about the book and watching the little waves glisten with stolen sunlight, that she leaned over and kissed me. Though it should be a happy memory, it’s not; because the picture of a Unicorn watching evergreens change color made me laugh, and she thought I was laughing at her. I apologized, and life went on. We played together, laughed together, and read together the rest of the summer. But she never kissed me again. And the next summer I was at the dock alone.
Maybe that informed the rest of my relationships. Sure, that seems like an easy thing to say, because it was just one girl and one summer, but it’s the truth. I never wanted to have attachments. Well, maybe I did, but I couldn’t let myself get close. They say there are many fish in the sea; well, I swam the depths for years. I met firefighters, secretaries, and even a writer or two. They were great at giving me what I needed, but I was terrible at giving back. I felt badly about it, but I never wanted to change. There just wasn’t any reason.
The longest I stayed with a woman was Mildred. Mildred made weekly trips to the farmer’s market for social interaction and intrigue. She saw adventure in every corner and under every bed. There was no story she couldn’t spin out of a few bare threads she’d overhear in the morning, and nothing she wouldn’t do for me. One day I told her I’d had enough and thought I’d like to move to Vermont. I said something about New England drawing me. I left, and when I came back to get my things, I saw the house on fire. She looked at me and her face was covered with soot. Then she looked away. She stood tall and boldly faced the east with the burning remnants of her house and former treasure behind her. I knew she wasn’t coming with me, although that was my first thought. No, I’d broken her heart, and I could see it melting, like glass, in the flames behind her that were blowing her ragged hair and filling it with ash.
Vermont was a fine place to live, but it didn’t have what I wanted. For years I went through each and every town I could find, trying to locate a little piece of something I’d never know was missing. Maybe it was a sense of adventure, I’m not sure. Somehow I got involved with a shady woman who dealt drugs for the mob. She had some strange cover stories for why she’d be late to everything. There was her job, of course, but it changed day by day, though I had a tie for the best two. Eventually, she made some mistakes and disappeared without a trace. I never did find out of she was a stripper or a bank teller.
My latest stop is at a nice hostel. I’ve been here for a while, now, and it seems nice enough. I can’t really tell you how long it’s been, exactly. Sometimes you lose track of time. A couple of the guys here are into that real hardcore stuff, and it messes with my mind a little bit. It gets foggy every now and then and I forget what time it is or how long I’ve been awake and little details like that. But the sense of adventure is still calling me. One of these days I’m gonna get up and get out. But for now, I’m pretty happy and I think I’ll just stay for a bit longer.
Sometimes, on hard days like this, the weaker parts of me think that maybe I should just abandon him here. He’s the only part of his father that I have left, though, and my only child. I couldn’t really let him go any more than I could rip out my heart and offer it to a stranger. Sometimes I wish he weren’t so much his father’s son. His father, he was such a charming man. He was institutionalized when I met him, but that didn’t make me want him any less. As a day helper I met with the patients and told them stories, and he was always the most lucid, and always offered me something nice, or something he thought was nice. They didn’t exactly have lots of disposable income or any trips to the local stores. Still, it was an incredibly thoughtful gift with a compliment each time. I often credited myself with his recovery, but I’m sure I was more of a bystander than an incentive.
I’m glad I had that experience at the institution, though. Fifteen years ago, they told me: “Mildred, you have to talk to him, you have to keep him grounded with your voice. It’s the only way he’ll stay cognizant of the real world.” It was easy at the time, because I always thought he’d get better. When they found him by the docks he was babbling about a girl and a book and a unicorn, saying he only wanted to read her something funny he had found. It turned out, the girl was a neighbor’s daughter who I’d seen playing by herself at the dock while my son was in his room, and that day I learned that no amount of apologies can make up for a lost child. But I still had mine, or so I thought.
He had a breakthrough a few years back. Each story I told him seemed to bring him back to the room a little bit more. He stopped fidgeting and stared directly at me. The new medications seemed to be working, finally. One day, he even asked for me by name to tell him a story. But then, a few days later, he looked at me and said “Mildred, I think I’m going to Vermont. Something about New England is calling me.” I don’t remember what happened next but I know that later I was sobbing outside with a doctor rubbing my shoulder and telling me that it was probably just temporary. But he didn’t know, he didn’t even have any children. I stayed away for weeks after that, and when I came back, he was the same as he had always been.
I went to work today. It was my first day on a new job, trying to make ends meet. The hours are horrible, and they keep me away from my son. But it pays the bills, and each time I walk through the door, I feel freedom for a brief moment, as I take in the world around me and think how I’ve given up and moved on with my life. But then the doors swish closed behind me, and the moment is gone. I know I have my obligations.