Her hands are shaking, but this is nothing. She has become accustomed to the feeling; she does not notice it.
Youth fades in the eyes. Hers hold a tainted innocence that's been worn away by what others may consider "growing up too quickly".
Walking along the street, she stares out in front of her, unaware. In her mind, she is breezing by the shops and cars like a milkweed puff in the wind. The dog that barks from across the street is nothing but muffled sound. She is in a muted television.
Autumn air is crisp. It bites the cheeks pink and raises collars to keep the neck warm.
Those who know nothing of her smile as she walks past, seeing nothing more than a pretty girl in stride down the street. Those who have courted her see a skeleton, a body, that carries beauty and pain as if it were a trifling matter. A mess of sorts, they pity her; they want to save her.
A sea rocks the small boat at sea. Waves splash and tease, caressing and thrashing, licking and bruising. Uncertainty in life, mixings like pancake batter.
My knuckles aren't as bruised as her heart. I rub them, feeling the freshly ripped skin burn as the top layer comes off under the pressure of my thumb.
I was raised well, in a "good" family. God taught me what was right and wrong, my father taught me how to be a man, and my mother taught me how to treat a lady with proper respect. Yet, here I am. The way fate has twisted its crooked fingers around me is beyond my comprehension.
I don't know how to walk away without feeling bad. But I know how to recover well and find my next victim.
Brent once told me that women are like fish.
"Wet, slippery little bitches, man. But there are so many, and we can take whatever we want and toss 'em back." He took a drag on his cigarette, eyes closed, tilting his head back as the nicotine rushed through his veins. He passed me the cigarette and I took a puff.
"Yeah, s'pose so."
"And you got so many, man, that it doesn't matter what you do with them. Another one will pop up, pussy wet, ready to suck your dick, and-"
"Yeah, yeah, man. I get it." Sometimes I hated when Brent was so crude.
I suppose that's just it, then. I'm a hunter, and I must be merciless with my prey. I do what I want, I make them believe I'm worth keeping around...and then it's over.
I can't blame anyone but myself. Sure, Christina went and fucked someone else when we were sixteen and we were in love. Marissa only made out with me when she was drunk and didn't tell me she had a boyfriend. Justine was a mess, a total mess... But, no. I still, somehow, broke them all. And, though I felt bad at the time, I no longer feel remorse. They're fish. They're pawns. They're my entertainment, my toys, my play things.
Sometimes, we dig down. I like to think of it as digging upwards.
There's a pain in my shoulder. I wonder if the pain of that is equal, greater than, or less than that of the pain in my mind caused by my past relationships.
So much is written over such a topic. Love. Relationships. Romance. The heart.
What is it, though? Is it truly something that is a figment created by our own minds? Is the true love really found within; do we need others to cultivate it, to help us nurture it?
Of course, it differs, person to person. Of course.
Recover, recovery... From these drugs. The dependence, the addiction. Are we really ever free? Addicted to food and shelter, to water, to life itself.
It this not just another symptom of living, of life?
What makes certain things better or worse than others?
There's a picture painted. Many pictures, in actuality. The fools we are, we forget that most pictures are just a split second of time. Without context, without the actual moments, we know nothing of what the picture is about, what went on the second before and after, or the emotions tangled within the bodies in the photograph.
I see a smile, but I really see a soul that has not evolved. Part of me wishes to aid that soul again, and part of me wishes to be rid of it, for its toxic grab poisons my own spirit.
We must let go.
We must be free.
When she left (did she really leave?), did she take a part of sense with her? Were things going to turmoil, only to be "made better" by the mask of sickness? Should she not have been taken, would life have been going to the trash? Have we been made stronger, or have we been made to rebuild ourselves differently to make up for what has been lost?
The books on my floor are not the same as they would have been with her presence. I feel like they might not even exist. Every moment, every happening, is altered, but meant purposefully.
And my heart? It is really my mind. Chemicals, I suppose, nerve endings, muscles and things that I do not understand working together to formulate thought and what I feel is emotion and feeling. Subjective. Objective. Fighting. Obsolete.
Chad once wrote on my drawing wall about living with passion, but being careful.
Ed wouldn't be happy, but he'd understand. Or have empathy. Or guidance.
Small beads of condensation form and roll down their vertical slip-and-slide, an iced tea that has yet to be touched.
A small piece of hair slides across her face as she leans to place her book and glasses down. She doesn't brush it away, for she is not bothered by its presence. Meredith is like that: unfazed by little annoyances, always a pleasant aura around her. Her hair is the color of a fawn in the sunlight, an innocent light brown. Her skin is creamy and smooth like silk; it glows like a peach when she blushes. Lips the shade of skin stained by raspberries, a mouth that breaks into a heartbreaking smile whenever someone tells a funny joke.
I first met Meredith when I was fourteen, young, and impressionable. She was sixteen, and, oh, how I looked up to her. She drove an old, beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit and smoked cigarettes at the time, a habit that her mother begged and pleaded for her to stop. "I just can't seem to do it," she had said to me once. "I try, but they always seem to end back in my hand. It's like twisted fate."
"How did you start?"
"Oh, a party, you know..." She looked off into the distance and took a drag. "I went to my friend Chase's New Year's Eve party. Two years ago. I was stressed out; my parents had been fighting, my grades were slipping. Chase had started the year before and offered me one. I figured, heck, he doesn't seem too bad. I had heard that smoking made you age faster and ruined your vocal chords. But Chase still looked seventeen - he was seventeen then, three years older than me - and had a sexy voice. So I took a chance and tried it. And, dang, it felt great. Like cinderblocks were lifted off of my shoulders."
I studied her face, watching as she pondered over her memory. A melancholic smile formed at the side of her mouth and her eyes glistened slightly.
"I'll stop," she said, looking at me. "I'll stop for you."
She touched my chin lightly, eyes locked with mine.
Sweat is starting to creep onto my forehead. I brush it away with the back of my hand and shake it onto the grass.
Clink, clink, clink.
Meredith is taking a sip of her iced tea. The delicate muscles in her neck ripple as she swallows the icy drink. She finishes off the glass and catches my eye.
"Let's go lay in the hammock."
We rise from our seats in the sun and walk through the grass to the shady area in her backyard. A big, majestic red maple tree stands there, its trunk thick with age and wisdom. It's known Meredith her whole life.
I steady the hammock; Meredith climbs in. I follow, sliding in next to her, our shoulders touching.
The hammock sways, our bodies feel almost weightless in our cocoon. Meredith lifts her hand to shade her face from some of the sun that breaks through the leaves and licks her face. She keeps her fingers spread and plays with the light.
I remember the time, early on in our blossoming friendship, when Meredith invited me over to her house and we laid in this very hammock. We had been reading George Orwell's 1984; she had to read it for assignment at school and I offered to read it with her that day. I was reading to her about O'Brien when she grabbed my hand suddenly and said, "Wait." I stopped reading and glanced over at her and, before I knew it, she was leaning over me, the hammock swaying, and a kiss was placed on my lips. It was ever so brief, so quick, that I hadn't time to process what was going on. For that split second, I had felt the warmth of her lips, so soft and velvety, pressed against mine. Time stopped for me, a whirlwind of confusion and a fireworked sky. And then it was over and she was back to laying next to me, the hammock swaying like a ship in the sea, mimicking the way my mind felt.
We're swaying. Meredith has her leg off of the side of the hammock, moving it back and forth to give us a light pendulum movement. It's calming, laying there with her. She runs her fingers through my hair and speaks of the future.
"I imagine I'll be on the beach, wading in the waves, soaking up the sun. Maybe I'll even learn to surf. Wouldn't that be cool?" She doesn't wait for a reply and continues on. "I mean, I have decent balance. I just need to learn to conquer the ocean."
She pauses, going off into her daydream. I turn to look at her, see her face as she's creating dreams in her mind. Her eyes have that distant look; her face is glowing and smiling. Her eyes catch mine.
"You can visit, you know. There will be plenty of room, and I'll make sure there is a spot for you."
I smile and turn my head back to look up at the leaves. "Yeah," I say, "that'd be cool."
Once, when I was twelve, I asked my mother what love was like. I so desperately wanted to have it, but I didn't quite understand it.
I sat at the kitchen table, feet going back and forth, back and forth, impatiently waiting a reply.
"Oh, I don't know, honey," she said. "It differs from person to person. And there is all sorts of it. Like how your father and I love you, how I love your father, how I love my friends like Lindy and JoAnn."
I wrinkled my nose, disappointed in that answer. "But what's it like with you and Daddy?"
The sun has moved and is starting to change the sky's color. It is still warm out, though I no longer feel sweat forming on my body. I reach down and put my fingers into Meredith's hand and wrap them around hers. I can feel hers squeeze mine. We lean our heads against each other. I have nothing to say; I am simply enjoying the moment.
There's a can of Campbell's that's been sitting on the kitchen counter for weeks now. She brought it home after shopping for some groceries.
"Look, Sam! I found this. Reminds me of Billy."
She placed it on the counter, and there it sat. Campbell's Minestrone, its red and white label staring at me.
Billy loved that soup. I remember him walking through the door many a day, dropping his bag, heading for the cabinet to grab the small can. A pot would be already be on the stovetop, waiting for him.
"Time is money; money is time," he'd say. "No point in putting it on the shelf when I'll be needing it, right?" He'd grin, a cheerful, gripping grin, one that won every girl at the bar over. How he did, I have no idea. But he did. Fuck, he even won me over.
"We'll have to invest in a gas range. I've been saving up. This thing's shit."
Slowly, the smell of savory vegetables and broth would fill the kitchen and our small apartment. Billy'd whistle as he poured himself a bowl, taking care not to spill. His hands moved with grace.
She didn't understand why he left, at first. She thought he was away on a business trip. Like the soup, she had brought other little things home that reminded her of him. A stuffed lamb. A book about coffee tables. A pamphlet from the new Chinese Takeout place that just opened up on Broad Street. All of these things just became clutter, sitting around the apartment. He never came back to see them like she thought he would.
"Why can't you just sort it out?" she'd ask, her big eyes full of concern. "You were so close... I just don't understand..."
I can't stand the way the can looks. The way the letters of 'Minestrone' are formed, their cheery, rounded edges, saying, "I'm friendly and tasty! Pick me!" bothers the Hell out of me. I keep staring at it, imagining the paper peeling off the ribbed metal like sunburn.
Tonight, we stray from the little white pill that promises sleep within minutes. Instead, we fight our instincts and attempt to keep the mind awake and create. A dormant time, a writer's block, an artist's block, is starting to fade and let rise another form of self.
Ah, how nothing makes sense right now, for my eyes are closing and my mind has already half shut itself down. The heat and the exhaustion make my body scream for sleep, for rest. Why, why do I deprive it so?
I can see pictures when I close my eyes, disturbing and odd things. What lays in my dreams tonight certainly shall be entertaining, though I am uncertain of the quality of the dreams.
I close my eyes again, and words and voices come to me. They tell me that things are alright; they will be fine. It is okay to deviate from the current in light of the new; do not throw things away but make room for what suits best.
Sleep now, my dear child. Sleep now, my dear self. Sleep, and rest. Sleep and rest well.
I'm frustrated. The hunt is not bringing up much meat. A stray field mouse here and there, maybe a lead to where a deer is, but, when I raise my arrow to strike, it is shot by another hunter or is frightened away by a noise.
It always feels like the evening dim comes too early for me, and I am forced to retreat back home, empty-handed. All of my efforts seem wasted when I have nothing to show my father. He assures me that it will be alright, though I see that it isn't true when the food on my plate diminishes over time and the skin over my bones tightens with weight slowly lost. We can only survive on what he's got for some time before I must be cast away or some other drastic measure must be taken.
I don't understand why. The forest is full of animals. They sprint around joyously when I do not carry my weapons. They hop and play; they even come up feet away from me now and then. But, as soon as I don my camouflage and hunter's eye, they flee. Not an animal in sight. Even when I tried my hand at fishing, I came home with nothing, for the fish would scatter, refusing my bait. I give them the bread and garlic, which they greedily snap up before darting away from my hook. But I never seem to catch something. I hide my hook in the small balls of food, expertly covering the sharp metal spoke. And, somehow, the fish seems to slip away. With the food. Without my hook spearing its lip.
I'm tired. I grow weak from lack of food, lack of protein that I should be getting from my daily hunting. My enthusiasm dwindles. I feel useless.
What I would give for a fresh slab of meat shot by my own self. Warm and glistening in the sun as I cut open the animal's flesh, tearing apart its carcass to use each scrap. I am growing ferocious and weak at the same time, a deadly combination for insanity. Don't let me slide away, please. Please.