It's three in the morning, and as I drive to Cassie's apartment, I think about turning on the radio, and then remember it broke last month. I continue in almost eerie silence. Dark clouds cover the moon and the stars; it's a pitch-black night. Only the occasional streetlamp casts a harsh pool of orange light on the empty sidewalk. No one's awake tonight, I think. Just Cassie and me. I've only had three hours of sleep, but I'm wide-awake. I'm worried about Cassie; she hasn't called me this late in a long time. I made a promise to her long ago that if she ever called, I'd come, no matter where or when. Twenty silent minutes later, I turn onto Maple Street and pull into the parking lot. I don't see any lights on in the apartment building, and as I turn off the engine, an apprehensive feeling starts to crawl in the pit of my stomach. I get out of the truck and the northeast winter assaults my body. They're calling for snow tomorrow, I remember, as the wind whips my face, buffeting my cheeks and freezing my nostrils. I climb the stairs and debate whether or not to ring the bell. Before I can decide, the door opens and there's Cassie in a pair of sweats and an undershirt. She stares at me with hollow, disbelieving eyes. I study her, trying to figure out how it got this bad. I haven't seen her in six months, and it amazes me how much she's changed. She's too thin, too pale, like a luminous skeleton in the shadows of the foyer. She's cut off her hair, up to her chin, and I can tell it hasn't been washed in a while. Her colors are gone - the emeralds and azures and rosy cheeks and mahogany hair - and she has a new palette: dark black and blue around one eye and down her arms, and a nasty, dribbling scarlet around her nose and lower lip. She's frozen, and I take off my jacket and wrap her with it, the bones in her shoulder jutting out painfully. It's like placing my jacket on a hanger. I take her hand, her fingers forming a tiny bone cage around my hand, and lead her to my truck. She follows numbly, the wind blowing strands of stringy hair into her eyes, though she doesn't notice. I brush them away and help her inside. Crawling in, she curls up against the door, pulling her bare feet onto the worn fabric. She leans her head against the window and shuts her eyes, letting out a long, low sigh. I start the engine and turn up the heat. As I pull back onto the main road, I steal a glance and see a tear roll down her cheek. I want to say something, but I've known Cassie long enough to understand that she doesn't want to talk. That was the agreement - if she ever called, I would pick her up and we'd just go. I never thought that it would actually turn out that way. I drive for two hours without either of us saying a word. I make my way along the interstate, passing a few truckers and travelers till we reach a seaside town in New Jersey. I stop at a Motel 6 and return with a room key and a maxed-out credit card. She stumbles out of the truck and we walk to room 216. Still, she doesn't say a word, doesn't even look at me. I don't know if she's too scared, too ashamed, or just doesn't care, but whatever the reason, Cassie stares straight ahead as I fumble with the key. Flipping on a light, I guide her to the bed as if she were blind. She collapses on top of the comforter and is asleep almost instantly, my coat still wrapped around her like a security blanket. I lock the door, turn on the heater, and shut the curtains against the pink horizon. Then, I take off my boots and slide in next to her, watching her back as it rises and falls. I want to sleep but can't; I have too many questions. How did it come to this? How did the two of us end up in some crappy motel at the edge of the Atlantic? How did Cassie become this battered, broken spirit? It wasn't always this way; she had dreams, goals. She was going to be an artist, a famous painter. God, how that girl could paint. Cassie and I met senior year in art class. She took it because she had talent; I took it because I was in desperate need of a fine arts credit to graduate. I walked in five minutes late that first day so the teacher marked me tardy and sat me in the last desk, closest to the windows. I didn't care about that though. To be honest, I didn't care about much of anything at that point. At least in this seat I'd have something to do: staring out the window was the one thing I excelled at in high school. That's when I saw her. She sat at one of the easels across the room, her brush furiously working against the canvas. I couldn't tell what she was working on, but it was the artist that caught my attention. She wasn't exactly beautiful, I decided. Her brown hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, and she wore paint-stained jeans with holes revealing two green splattered knees. Her face was plain, yet it was what caught my eye in the first place. Her brow was furrowed in concentration as she attacked the canvas, ignoring the streak of purple that splashed into her hair as she whipped the brush back and forth. Her lips were pressed together in a thin line of criticism. Her eyes burned passionately. They were a blue-green color, like the ocean when the sun is at the perfect angle with the sky and the water, reflecting them both against each other, and you have to stop and look twice because just once isn't enough time to take it all in. For the rest of class, the teacher went through what materials we'd need, but I spent my time watching this artist and her eyes. The bell rang, but as everyone filed out, she stayed, still working furiously. I wondered what could make someone so passionate, what could light a fire like that, so I went to look. 'Don't you dare,' she said as I approached, not even bothering to glance in my direction. 'Dare to what?' I asked, still walking toward her, but as I spoke, she turned those raging storms of blue on me, and I froze. I found that when I was the object of her attention, all my smart remarks and snide comments seemed to evaporate. Defenseless, I stood dumbly. 'What is it?' I asked finally as she resumed painting. 'None of your business.''Got it,' I nodded. 'What's your name?'For the first time, her hand stopped. Putting down the brush, she looked at me and I felt the scrutiny of those eyes. 'Cassie,' she replied, wiping her hands on her jeans. I watched as greens, browns, blues and blacks appeared from underneath her palms, streaking the pants. 'You?'?'Jack,' I said, but I couldn't hear myself. Those eyes held me spellbound. She nodded, not listening, observing me like her painting, and suddenly I felt extremely uncomfortable. Suddenly, as if snapping out of a trance, she shook herself, and then swore under her breath. 'I'm going to be late,' she muttered. She rose and maneuvered the cumbersome easel away from the light and my vision. As she headed for the door, she paused and turned toward me. 'You coming, Jack?' she asked. Indeed.For the next three months, my question after class was always the same: 'What is it, Cassie?''None of your business, Jack,' she'd reply sweetly. Every time. We got to know each other during that time. I discovered she had been painting since she was 13; she learned that I would never be an artist. Even my attempts at drawing a can of soup ended as a rectangle with circular ends and the word Campbell's slapped on the front. Cassie and I both hated school, we found out, though for different reasons. I wouldn't be able to afford college, and didn't have the grades for scholarships. My dad ran out on my mom when I was young, and she wasn't home half the time. I just wanted to get a job working with my hands, maybe on a construction crew. Cassie wanted to be an artist, of course, and with her grades, there wasn't much else she could do. Grades weren't important though, she always said. Why do well in American government if all you wanted to do was spend your days painting? And traveling, she was always quick to add. She wanted to go to India, Spain, France, China, Japan, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, South America, Africa ... anywhere other than our small New England town. One day in December, I came into class and the painting was gone. 'Where is it, Cassie?' I asked. She grinned. 'None of your business, Jack.'Five months later, and Cassie and I had finally accomplished our goal. We made it through high school. Not only that, but we'd graduated, which was a plus in our minds. We celebrated that night, driving to the coast with a cooler of beer. As we sat there, getting buzzed and listening to the waves, Cassie pulled a package out of the truck. It was the canvas I had seen her working on so passionately at the beginning of the year. Holding it up to the headlights, I realized it was a portrait of a young man staring out the window. He sat in the last desk of the far row of an art classroom, and his expression was one of restlessness and longing for something else, though he couldn't quite figure out what. 'Happy graduation, Jack,' Cassie whispered, digging her toes into the sand. As I looked at that woman sitting next to me in the sand, the ocean breezes lifting her hair, her paint-stained fingers grasping a can of beer, I realized I was in love with her. Cassie caught my gaze with those same disarming eyes that had snared me so long ago. 'What is it, Jack?' she asked, puzzled. I smiled. 'None of your business, Cassie.'Funny how life has its own little twists and turns. I had always planned to tell Cassie how I felt, always planned to get married, start a family, and live the rest of my days watching dreams unfold behind those stormy, ocean eyes. What I didn't plan on was Drake. A year after we graduated, Cassie met Drake while she was working at a local bar; seven months later I was walking her down the aisle of St. John's. As I let go of her arm to give her away, I realized she saw us as best friends and nothing more. After she and Drake were married, I heard less and less from her. I got a job as a mechanic, found an apartment, and lived my life wondering what might have been. I used to dream about her. In my dream, we'd be sitting on that same beach, watching the tide come in. She'd be curled up against me, idly playing with the wedding band Drake had put on her finger. Slowly, she'd pull it off and we'd watch the sun glint against the gold. Without saying a word, she'd throw it into the ocean and together we'd watch her pain drown.Now, three years later, I wondered if she'd do it. Would she leave Drake and come with me? We could start a new life together, somewhere far away from the cold Atlantic Ocean. Cassie stirs, and I jolt awake. She sits up and rubs her eyes, avoiding the bruises. 'Go take a shower, Cass,' I tell her gently. 'I'll make some coffee.' Childlike, she obeys me, shuffling to the bathroom. I hear the water running and over it, she is muffling her sobs with a towel. I put on the coffee. The room fills with a warm, rich scent, and I wait patiently till she reappears in her same clothes. Her hair is wet and shining in the lamplight, and I think inside that shell, she is still beautiful. She sits on the edge of the bed and I hand her a cup of coffee. She curls her long fingers around it and I notice how clean they are. When's the last time she painted, when had those fingertips been stained with the pigments and hues of the oils? When is the last time inspiration sparked inside those dead eyes? We sit in silence. She doesn't drink the coffee; rather she lets the heat warm her hands. Finally she says, 'I'm sorry, Jack.''He hits you, doesn't he?''I ... he only does it every once in a while, when I piss him off, or he's had a rough day at work.''It's not right, Cassie,' I tell her. 'You know it's not.'She's quiet for a moment, and then looks at me for the first time, and I see those eyes that I fell in love with years ago. 'I know, but I love him. Despite it all, he understands me like no one else does. He's the best I've got.''What about me?' I snap, then immediately regret it. She doesn't need me to add to her problems, but my mouth won't be quiet. 'I've always been there, Cassie, waiting for you. I understand you, all your dreams and ideas and paintings. When's the last time you painted, Cassie? Does he let you paint?''Once I got married, things changed. I ... I had new priorities,' she whispers, tears in her eyes. 'Painting wasn't one of them. And Drake doesn't like me talking to other men. He's protective. He's always looking out for me.'I can't believe what I'm hearing. This fragile, battered soul before me was once a fierce, proud young woman. Drake has broken her beyond recognition. 'Then why did you call me, Cass?' I whisper, reaching over and grabbing her hand. She flinches, shocked by the touch. The tears fall as she locks her eyes with me, pleading for love, help, and compassion. All the words she can't say are summed up in those beautiful, tortured eyes. She drops the coffee on the floor. I pull her close to me, holding her skeletal body in my arms. She sobs into my shoulder, and I rock her slowly back and forth, stroking her damp hair. 'I'm scared, Jack,' she whispers. 'I'm so scared.'She falls asleep in my arms. I lay her back on the bed and pull the blankets over her. Lying next to her, holding her against me protectively, I see the wedding band around her finger. 'I love you, Cassie,' I whisper, kissing her shoulder softly. I wake up alone. The realization hits me like a wave during high tide. She's gone, back to Drake, back to her colorless world. There's a note on the pillow. 'I love you, Jack. I'm sorry.'? I read it once, twice, then shred it and toss the pieces in the trash. Grabbing my keys, I climb into my truck. The engine roars to life, and I tear out of the parking lot. Instead of going back to my apartment, I head south on the interstate, following the ocean. The sun's at that angle, the one where the sky and the water combine to create her eyes, pleading with me even now as I turn and run from my life. I hate the ocean, I decide. I will always hate the ocean.
March 3, 2010