He’s unexpectedly short with a fuzzy shock of white-blonde hair, and the palest, most middle-of-winter, clear blue, no-rain-in-the-forecast, first snow, silent-winter-night eyes. The ground is frozen and I can see my breath and my nose stings an irritated pink, but then I reach his pupil; a comfortingly dark window that does an awful job of keeping his soul contained in his head. You could say his eyes were glassy, or dreamy, or ethereal, or cosmic, or stellular, or you could say they were cataclysmic. Or you could say nothing.
He told me that he trusted me. Of course, I couldn’t see his face at the time. I had to trust that he trusted me. And I did, rightfully. I stepped willingly out the front door and was plunged immediately into a dry, frigid afternoon. His car was well-heated, though, and after only a few minutes, I could feel my sweatshirt sticking to my back. He parked the car quite a ways from our destination, but of course I didn’t mind. I trusted him.
He picked the most suitable bench. It was old, and well-prepared for what we needed it to be prepared for. Which was for sitting. We sat.
The cold sat, too. It sat and it sank deep.
It was like when the water in a lake is so cold that it feels like it’s burning. I was numb, but my muscles were tense nonetheless, shuddering like a decrepit minivan on the last leg of the family summer road trip, desperately trying to contain body heat. My eyes were focused on my beat-up maroon shoes; I could not move. He trusted me not to. The weight of this trust forced my feet into the dirt an inch, and I crossed my arms, thinking it would help me contain heat. The bench was old and cracked and park-ranger green, and his tears dropped with such density that they shattered the ground, crashing into the forest floor with such ferocity as to tear through the subterrene layers of rock clean through to the center of the Earth. The heat was unbearable, so scorching that in seconds I was freezing. The magma at the heart of the planet was visible, churning, boiling, heaving. The earth was retching, and suddenly the mammoth craters were swallowed up, consumed by the image of my shoes, fidgeting in the dirt. I could not move.
I noticed that he was trembling, maybe from the cold, maybe from the immensity of his burden. He had so much, so many things to carry. From what I could interpret, his legs were close to breaking, so I listened. I was dead silent, a painting of myself, unable to move, unable to speak, unable to react. I sat next to him in solidarity, so alone; he was on the island adjacent to mine, just far enough to be out of reach. I shoved my hands into my pockets as he gasped for air. I could not will myself to move, my paint was drying. All I could do was gaze across the sea separating us, trying to shoot sympathy at him through sight. I watched as he drowned, and I was a murderer. The blood on my hands was cold, and I looked down at my shoes, waves lapping at the tips of my tattered kicks. I could hear him, I could, and I was evil. I forced my bones into motion and willed myself in his direction, imagining my effort to reach out as being as legendary and as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but much like in the painting, my hand just missed his, and he was drowning and I was watching. My paint dried.
The islands disappeared and we were on the bench again. It had really happened, though, and I could still feel the blood on my hands. I was forever a painting, forever too late to do anything, forever too late to reach out.
I reached out. A bitter cold. My hand slips on the locked handle of the door, too icy to grip long enough to open anyways. The locks spring open as he presses the button, and I slip into the soft passenger seat quickly, silently, making no sound except the crackle of an empty water bottle under my foot as I situate myself in the seat. Shutting the door, unsurprisingly, makes me no warmer, as the dark interior of the car is as frigid as the hard plastic bench we sat on not twenty minutes ago. My muscles ache from walking, but the false comfort of my seat eases my clenched calves, but only a little, for I know the tension is far from over.
He didn’t have allergies, but his eyes were red. He didn’t have allergies, but his voice was scratchy. He didn’t have allergies, but his eyes were irritated and gleaming. He didn’t have allergies, but his throat was closed up; catching half of his words and forcing them back down into his lungs. He didn’t have allergies, but he couldn’t stop wiping; his eyes, his nose, his mouth; in between motions, his hands gripped the steering wheel like tiny pale vices. His burgundy sweatshirt sleeves were marked with dark spots; his sunglasses coated in nervous fingerprints and dried teardrops. His green beanie sat too far back on his hair; barely clinging on, sliding back behind him in his seat.
Somebody had broken the sky. It was probably an accident; but nevertheless, it spilled around us; we were drowning in the sun’s technicolor pinks and blues and golds, swirling directionless in a sort of glowing, deceivingly lovely purgatory.
“I’m sorry.” He could barely make it above a whisper. He shifted his hat back on his head and sniffed with the stability of a dam made of dust.
“Don’t apologize,” I replied. I lifted my glasses and wiped my eyes, but I didn’t have allergies either.
It must have been something in the air, for I wiped and wiped and could not stop wiping either, coming down with an invisible sickness that anybody could diagnose. Guilt came in heavy waves, washing over me, the thick swells filling my eyes and nose and ears, submerging me, and I all could hear was “You should have!” so loud that it drowned out all other noise.
We are parked in my driveway and it’s pitch-dark and it’s cold outside, but his car is heated and I can feel the sweat on my back again. The commotion in my head hasn’t stopped. I am being bombarded; a belligerent cerebral questionnaire, shooting each phrase at me in quick succession of the last.
“You should have! You should have hugged him!”
“Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You could have!”