I met her before I met him. She was the first person I met at college. Not literally as in she was the first person that I was introduced to, but rather in the sense that she was the first person who I really got to know at college. We were both English majors, quiet, a little unsure around other people. Well, she was a little unsure around people. She was shy. I wasn’t so much unsure as I didn’t like to get too close to people.
I didn’t like to get too close to people because I saw how people lost things. I don’t mean that in some cynical everyone-loses-everyone sort of way. I wasn’t afraid of having my heart broken. I mean it in the sense that for as long as I could remember I had seen how people lost things. It used to be helpful. My mom was a bit absent-minded. She was always misplacing everything: keys, shoes, my father.
I would see it all so clearly. My mother going about her day and then she’d set the keys down, somewhere strange, at the café counter where she was ordering a cappuccino or on a shelf at the library. She’d be frantic later and I’d suggest where she should look. She’d always be surprised when I turned out to be right. Lucky guess, I’d say. She’d stare at me, a beat too long, but she’d never quite figure it out. She must have thought I was the strangest child in the world.
It stopped being helpful and started getting weird when my sister lost something that wasn’t as physically concrete as a doll or a piece of homework. I saw the way that Bobby Robbs, a boy whose name would forever stick in my mind because of its natural ludicrousness, started with a kiss. Then the back of the station wagon, the quickness of it all. My sister came home that night, trying not to grin, and I tried to not know the reason for her smile. I tried to look surprised when she confessed it to me later, her voice so shaky that she sounded different, not more adult, just different.
Losing things didn’t just mean objects. It meant everything and anything that could be lost. So, I had my reasons for distance. The problem was that I just couldn’t not become friends with her. That was my first mistake. It’s always surprising how easily one can succumb to friendship, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
Her name was Gretel. Like the fairy tale, like someone who one day would get lost in the woods. I thought getting lost in the woods would be an understandable sort of loss, a kind that I could fix.
We’d get coffee after class. This moved into dinners, movies, days spent just hanging out at each other’s apartments. We got along well, had the kinds of conversation where there were no empty pauses. I think she was the first person, I wasn’t related to, who I could say I really truly loved.
I never really had many boyfriends during college. Or high school for that matter. Young guys were the type to always be losing things. It got to be so much. I got sick of it quickly. I always wanted to tell them to focus. Just focus. No one knew what I could do, though. It seemed like something that could never really be dropped into a conversation, not without silence following the statement. Silence or disbelief. Both would have been equally bad.
Gretel was the only one I ever seriously considered telling. Probably, I would have. I’m sure I would have. But then there was him.
She met him in a class. I met him later. She introduced me to him. They were just friends at that point. He didn’t seem like her type: he was gawky, friendly, sweet. She had always liked brooders. The kind of guys who probably had tried wearing eyeliner at least once in their lives. He wasn’t like that. I never found him attractive, but I found him endearing. He would have been a great older brother.
We got along in that strange way of two people who both love a mutual person. Our love was different, of course, and I understood that about him immediately. I knew he loved her long before she would have admitted it to herself. She was a cynic in that regard. Or she claimed to be. There was no such thing as romantic love. There was just love. I liked that about her. That she didn’t make a line between the kinds of love that one could share.
The first thing that happened to change us was when he kissed her. She talked about it later, though I had already known. She had lost her naivety. She had really thought that they were just friends. Maybe, I was a little surprised at the look in her eyes when he kissed her. He was hungry for her. It was a passionate kiss. It was like a light coming on. I had always thought that was a cliché until I saw it in her. Her eyes widening at the moment when his lips touched hers and then the way she surrendered into it, into him.
She talked about it in whispers. Her voice wasn’t shaky like my sister’s had been. Her voice was more filled with wonder like his kiss had woken her from some enchantment. She was Sleeping Beauty shook to life by a body touching her own.
I liked them together. They fit perfectly: lock and skeleton key, Lego blocks connecting to make something else. I liked the way they were always touching, his knee knocking gently against hers when they sat next to each other, her hand brushing his arm when she reached across him to grab something. They gave me hope that closeness could be something comfortable.
I remember calling her one morning. I knew right away that I had woken her. I was about to apologize and hang up when I heard him in the background asking something. Probably wondering who was calling or what time it was or something equally innocuous. She had never said that they were sleeping together; I imagined that it might have been the first time. She shushed him, sounded embarrassed. Behind the embarrassment I could hear how happy she was. It was nice to hear happiness as something that I could define: a quality to her voice that even untrained ears could pick up.
I suppose they were the reason that I fell for Brendan. It was my second mistake. He was in a class with me. Shy, didn’t smile much, but when he did it was like I could feel the world breaking apart, like sunlight cracking ice, like life itself. I had never quite wanted someone as much as I wanted him. He asked me out and I said yes. It’s easy to forget the rules that we set for ourselves. There is always the one exception, and with that willingness to break the rules comes the danger of having broken them. I read a sign once that stuck with me for years though I can’t really say why. It was on the gates of the cemetery in the town where I grew up. The sign was a list of ten rules. Rules for the graveyard. As a child I was terrified of breaking them. What would happen? Would the dead be angry with me? How many rules might they overlook being broken before they’d have to take action?
It was easy to fall in love with Brendan. He was exactly the sort of person I wanted to be in love with. Maybe that sounds harsh or cold. Maybe it puts limits on love if I admit that I had a certain type. But it is only maybe these things in retrospect, at the time I did love him. I still believe that.
We sometimes went out together. The four of us. Devin and Brendan got along together great. One was all awkward charm and the other seemed to enjoy this. We would also have dinners together. Gretel was a lovely cook: she had a certain ability to make delicious meals out of very few ingredients. I liked to watch her cooking. She became focused, she would sometimes sing under her breath while chopping vegetables, the blade hitting the cutting board serving as a backbeat to her voice. I’d help her a little, but mostly I’ve always been useless in the kitchen. It was one of these nights when I saw her make the cut before it happened. It was a flash, the knife slipping, the red flooding across the neatly cut bits of green pepper, the colors of Christmas. I told her to be careful. I had never warned anyone before. She looked at me, cocking her head slightly to the side, and it was when she looked at me, took her focus away, that the knife slipped. It hit her hand. It didn’t look like it should have been so bad and yet the blood came fast. I’m losing so much blood, she said. Matter of fact as she stared at her hand. I didn’t catch her when she fainted. I didn’t expect her to fall so easily.
We all drove to the hospital together. Brendan driving the car, me sitting in the front biting my nails, Devin holding Gretel who was holding a rag wrapped tightly around her hand. She had hit a vein, required stitches, and she’d have a scar across her palm forever. It’s like an extra life line, she had said to me. It was a joke, but for some reason I thought it was an interesting concept: the idea of a parallel life running alongside her own. I wondered if there was a way that could be found to jump between the two, if she stopped liking one life then she could just switch over to the other path.
It was after this that I started getting worse. I started seeing things getting lost all over the place. I’ve never been sure what caused it—if it was letting Brendan in or if it was the fact that I warned Gretel. I must have broken one of the rules.
They kept coming to me in flashes; everyone I passed seemed to be on the verge of losing something. They became almost painful. The suddenness of the flashes. I would crouch down, bend over, sob out with the pain. They were brilliant like sudden migraines, bursting sharply in my head, blossoming like fireworks of sight. I went to the doctor, tried to get something to take it away. I couldn’t explain, so I just said that I got piercing headaches. The doctor suggested cluster migraines as the cause. Gave me a prescription. It did nothing. It was like the pain wasn’t a physical pain. It was just in my head. This made it so much more frightening. I couldn’t escape it.
Brendan began to get worried. I’d catch him staring at me, concerned, scared. Him looking so scared made me more frightened. I didn’t want empathy, I’ve never wanted mutual sorrow with anyone; I just wanted him to think that everything was normal.
It was a Sunday. I knew what was going to happen. I saw it upon waking. The man. The gun. The life draining. How can a heartbeat be lost so easily? To stop like that and never make a sound again, never race at the sight of someone else again, never slow when sleeping again, never again. I knew what was going to happen. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.
We were all out together. We were getting groceries. Brendan had a big car. It made sense for us all to go together. More people to help carry groceries in. The man was mad. I don’t think he was there for money. He was just there because he was mad. Later, he would plead insanity. I didn’t follow the trial but I know that he lost.
He wasn’t aiming at us. There was a woman behind us. A woman who was his ex. Maybe girlfriend, maybe wife, I don’t think that I ever really cared about the specifics. Though, now, I admit that I sometimes wonder. The bang was like a thousand things happening at once. It sounded like the world cracking apart, the ice breaking under a skater and welcoming them into frozen waters. I closed my eyes before it went off. I knew. Gretel screaming. Devin yelling. The thud of his body against the ground. I opened my eyes. Brendan wasn’t moving. He was already gone. It was so fast. A second. Someone knocked the gunman over. The gun skittered across the floor. It looked like a spider, scuttling towards me. I looked at Brendan. I looked at him. I couldn’t close my eyes, couldn’t stop the staring until someone took me away.
I had known. But I hadn’t really known. I had imagined that there would be some divine intervention. I followed the rules. I thought this would save him. Us. Me.
This should be the end. It should end with this loss. It doesn’t. I made more mistakes.
There were three of us now. We tried to find comfort in each other. Gretel and Devin should have been all right. But something changes when you lose someone. I think they lost their innocence or their faith or something.
I knew what was going to happen long before they did. I saw it. The way they’d lose each other. It would be easy. Gretel just stopped talking to him one day. She wanted to forget what had happened. It was a nightmare that was she was sure she could wake up from. She asked me once how I knew to close my eyes. I shrugged, said it was instinct. She said that she wished she had closed hers. That there was something about seeing the moment that the bullet hit him that was like seeing the end of the world. She tried to hug me. She couldn’t imagine how I must be feeling, she said. I let her hold me but I didn’t hold her back. I think she mostly felt guilty because she hadn’t lost anyone. So I let her lose him.
I let her lose him. I thought it was best if we all just lost each other. If we found other people to bury ourselves in. There are things you can’t go back from. I moved away. Not right after but soon. I graduated and left the city. I kept Gretel’s and Devin’s numbers for a little while but I lost them eventually.
After I moved I stopped getting the flashes. I’d visit my mom and she’d lose her keys and I had no idea where they might be.
It was fifteen years later, at an art gallery. It was an artists’ reception. A show called Things We Dropped Along the Way. I liked the title. My sister was one of the artists. She took photos of people letting go of things: a woman dropping a cup into a trash can, a couple whose hands were slipping apart. She told me that she was looking to capture the precise moment when something was no longer held, not the moment it began to fall, but the moment right before the fall, the drop, the slip.
I saw a painting from across the room. It was of a man falling. He was arcing through a blue sky. He looked familiar even from twenty feet away. I walked closer. It was Brendan. Brendan falling through a perfect cloudless sky. I stared and stared. The artist had two other paintings alongside that one. One was of Gretel, she was smiling up at something, and looking more beautiful then I had ever known she was. The other painting was of me, younger, with my eyes closed, and even with them closed I looked terrified, like I was about to lose everything. It must have been what I looked like when Brendan died. Someone must have seen my face.
I stared at them. The three paintings. A hand touched my shoulder. I turned around and it was Devin. He was older, worn, but I’d have known him anywhere. He was still gawky, his smile was still a little nervous, but always friendly. He didn’t recognize me. I wondered what had so changed in me that I was unrecognizable.
“Do you have any questions about them?”
“I, I do. The girl who’s smiling. The others seem sad. But she’s smiling?”
He only half-smiled this time, “I can’t ever picture her not smiling. It’s funny, but I didn’t want to put her into a painting and not have her smile. I didn’t want her caught that way. “
“And what about the other girl? The one with her eyes closed. She looks so—“
“Like the end of the world? I know. She…She’s someone I knew once and I saw her like this and it was the strangest thing. She was about to kiss her boyfriend, closed her eyes, and looked terrified, like she was gambling her life on a bet she knew she’d lose.”
“When, when, she was about to kiss him?”
He nodded, and then shrugged. “I think she was someone who always knew that life was loss and nothing more.”
I thought about my life. A life lived in fear of breaking rules. I thought about how when I was happy it was with them. I hadn’t been happy in years. I hadn’t realized that one could so easily lose an entire emotion.
“Do you still know her? The smiling girl?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
“No. I don’t even know where she lives anymore. I guess I lost her forever.”
He looked back at the painting of Gretel. He turned away quickly like he could only look so long without going blind, like her smile was the sun.
I reached out and touched his arm. A flash. It was Gretel. She was sitting by a window. It was in her family home. I had visited her once there. Written letters to her over the summer the first few years of college. I knew that address by heart.
He stared down at my hand. I wonder if in that moment he knew me. But I don’t think so. I think he was remembering a hand with a scar running up it. In another life that would have been the hand reaching out to touch him.
“Would you hold on for a second?” I asked and he nodded.
I wrote down the address from memory. I handed it to him.
“Just believe me. From one person who believes in loss to another. Just go there.”
I turned around and left. He called out to me. I didn’t stop. In my head, I imagined him going there and her opening the door. I imagined her smiling. I imagined that he would never have seen anything so beautiful. I imagined that he would say, over and over, I’ve found you. I’ve found you, I’ve found you.