-I don't care if I knew every word she was about to say. It didn't matter. Her breath would hit the December air and it would dissolve right back into the place she had taken it from. It was a vicious cycle. All of it. She had glasses when I met her. These huge black things, hiding her eyes. I had seen her before but sight is our most pathetic sense. It does no justice for us. Taste is the second worst. Sound is, in my opinion, the very best. Until I remember words are just words. But words and sound aren’t always the same thing. Meaningless words could never compare to her laugh when it echoes off the library walls and is stampeded by the "Shh" of the ancient librarians. Never. Anyway, touch is my favorite. But that’ because I'm feeling nostalgic about this whole ordeal.
When I met her she didn't have any freckles. Her warm breath filled the winter air and her teeth were competing with the snow. Her cheek bones were high and thin. Her eyelashes were dominated by the soft flakes that rested on them. Her glasses had flown off her face and landed on the concrete. The concrete won. I picked them up and looked at that shattered glass before I saw her eyes for the first time. I had imagined them as green and was surprised when my eyes beheld those soft grays. I can't recall if I stopped breathing because I had been pelted on the back of the head with a snowball or because this girl looked at the glasses in my hand as if they were a deceased friend. Her gray eyes looked so sad against that sharp snow. She walked a little too quickly towards them and absurdly bumped into me. I thought maybe she had been trying to be cute when she said sadly, "I'm so sorry, I have terrible depth perception without my glasses." Well, haven't we all?
I have a funny feeling inside me, that this breath she just took might be the last breath I see her take for a while. It sucked the pollution in and with exasperation exhaled her emotions out. She was so beautiful.
She walked away from me with her broken glasses on her face. I thought about telling her that having shattered glass near your eyes was dangerous and then it occurred to me that she is hopefully over the age of five and is perfectly aware of this fact. In reality, I just wanted to say something, anything to her. I settled with, "Would you like some hot chocolate?" The question seemed forced and out of place. It echoed in my own ears for at least 5 seconds before she paused and turned around slowly. It wasn’t the creepy turn of a clown or the intimidating turn of an offended delinquent, but the heartfelt turn of someone who isn't sure they heard what they just heard. Her pink cheeks contrasted the snow and a quizzical smile appeared on her lips. "You have hot chocolate with you?" she asked in a chuckle. "Well, err... no," I admitted, "I mean… would you like to come get some with me?"
Her gray eyes stopped on my face for a moment and she inhaled her third breath. I was amazed that she was still standing in front of me. Is it pathetic that I'm counting her breaths? I feel myself holding onto them as if they provided my life support and not hers...
I walked her to my pick-up truck. She was shivering a little and I wanted to put my arms around her. If she had been a close friend or even a closer acquaintance, I probably would have held her without putting another thought behind it. I'm not known for having a lot of women or anything like that, but I'd help a girl out in two situations: I was an official love interest or strictly a friend. The middle ground left too much open for confusion. Touch is my favorite sense. I'm terrible with words. I fought the urge to carry her or at least hold her hand and when we got to my pick-up truck I opened her door and blasted the heat. She smiled a little. I closed her door and began wiping off my windows.
She rubbed her eyes. I wondered if she actually needed to rub her eyes or if it was simply something that would allow her to not look at me. Breath number five. If she was breathing, I could, too.
We arrived at the local coffee shop and she was already half way out of the truck when I had made it around to help her out. I stood there a little awkwardly as she closed her own door and walked past me, towards the shop's entrance. I followed a foot behind her and she held that door open for me. I took off my hat and thanked her. In my nineteen years, she was the first girl to ever hold a door open for me.
She leaned against the wall and I wished that wall were me... or at least that I could come between them. "Would you please just say something?" The bitterness in her voice ate the freezing cold air alive. Breaths six and seven.
She sat on her feet, on a couch, in front of the coffee shop's fireplace. She had whipped cream and cinnamon on her top lip. I had the urge to wipe it off and half-way through that thought the tip of her tongue did the job. I realized I was staring at her at the same time I realized she hadn't noticed. So, I directed my eyes towards the fire. The cozy shop was warm and inviting with its tamed fire licking the logs of wood. Old friends played chess and the workers spoke merrily to the regulars. I was so warmed by the atmosphere that I almost forgot I was sitting next to a beautiful girl. "My parents met in that doorway," she said, softly.
"Nothing?" she spat. Breath eight seemed wasted; it was so closely stalked by breath nine. I thought deeply as her eyes searched me for a heart, or even a soul. I opened my mouth but I couldn't find anything, either.
She removed her soaking shoes and placed them closer to the fire. She suggested that I do the same. She sat sideways on the couch, facing my left side. Her feet were close to me and I wanted to place her legs on my lap and help thaw her toes. She began asking me where I went to school and what I was studying. "I major in architecture. I go to school right down the road." Her face gleamed with excitement when she said, "No way! We go to the same school!" I thought about what I wanted to say and decided to say it, even if it would make her feel bad. "I know. We had some classes together first semester."
Breath number ten was the worst. Following this breath she said, "I knew I shouldn't have accepted this." She took the red ring off her finger and placed it in my palm. Breath eleven was her first breath all alone.
After the coffee shop, I took her home. She directed me to her house and I couldn't believe where she was taking me. Her house was small and blue, a dozen houses away from the light green house at the top of the hill. She lived right by me and she never knew my name. I never knew her name.
"No, I, please," three words stormed the gates of my silence. "Now you have words? Why are you doing this to me?" she asked, quietly. Here is where I lost count of her breaths.
"Thank you for this afternoon, it was really nice," she said. She was about to leave my car when I touched her hand. She looked at me in surprise. Her gray eyes were so innocently confused behind that shattered glass. They weren't offended, scared or happy. They were just full of a curious surprise. It took me a moment to ask my question. "Are you going to ask me my name?" I didn't ask it in a desperate way or an angry way. It was almost playful. She smiled a little. "What is your name?" She asked, softly. Softer than the snow that had taken refuge on her eyelashes... I smiled and took out a pen and some paper. I wrote my number down and placed it in the hand that I had previously been holding. "If you really want to know, you're gonna have to call me soon... or you could walk up to 289 and ring the bell. I live there." She smiled and paused, then nodded. She chuckled the smallest chuckle I had ever heard, gave me a little wave of her hand, and walked into the house. I turned on the radio and Jack Johnson sang the words I hoped she was thinking, "If I had eyes in the back if my head, I would've told you that you looked good as I walked away."
"I... I... I'm sorry." I stammered, pathetically. My hands were in my pockets and my breaking heart spilled into my veins, keeping me a little too warm. She rolled her eyes and her teeth began chattering. I guess the ice around her soul isn't so toasty.
A day or two passed and I began wondering what she was doing. I'd drive past her house even if it were a few seconds out of my way, hoping I could catch a glimpse of her. We were on winter break so she might have gone somewhere awesome like Hawaii or Las Vegas. I really hoped she hadn't. Not that I didn't want her to be happy and warm... I just thought she could be happy and warm in this big, freezing town... maybe with me. I'd try to shake these thoughts that just kept jumping ahead of me but I was a one man army against the Spartan phalanx that was the picture of her in my mind. Quite the civil war. There was very little hope. At least I had a lot to do at work. I worked, and still work, for a local construction company. During the winter holiday season (I was going to say Christmas time, but that isn't politically correct) more people donate to my company so that we can renovate and expand on the homeless shelters in the area. During this time I spend half of my time working with our paying customers' houses and the other half of my time is donated to the needy. They're all very thankful and it warms the soul to know you're helping put a roof over a poor mother's two children. A lot of the local kids volunteer to hand out soup, clothes and other necessities. They always tried to feed me but I insisted that the food should go to someone else. I would normally avoid talking to the girls out of respect and not wanting to attract too much attention to myself, but I couldn't help but wonder if the gray-eyed girl was here. I took a step inside the cafeteria and there she was. She had on a green shirt and her long brown hair fell as a mess of curls over her right shoulder. She smiled sweetly as she poured warm soup into a bowl and handed it to a little girl with curls just like hers. She was so beautiful.
She breathed in like an angry dragon; I knew the exhale would melt me to her feet. I searched her face wildly and tried to take her hand. She moved her wing away from me violently and tried to make me catch fire with her eyes. If looks could kill, I would have instantly disintegrated.
My shift was supposed to end at 5 but I did some extra work until 6:50. Dinner for the shelter began cleaning up at that time and I was hoping I could bump into this girl not only in my mind. I put away all of my tools and changed from my working boots to my winter boots. My arms were a little more sore than they would have been had I ended my work earlier, but hearing her voice would be worth every bit of soreness. I walked from the back of the building where it was being extended to the front where the next set of volunteers was flowing in. I saw some friends and they wished me a Merry Christmas as they entered the shelter. I smiled pleasantly and tried to hide the spurts of anxiety that spasmed in my mind. Would she think I was stalking her? Had she not called me for a reason? Should I just go home, now? I was half way through that last thought when some of the volunteers began leaving. The girls said goodbye and thank you sweetly; the guys tipped their hats at me. It occurred to me that I was probably covered in sawdust and dirt. I hoped that wouldn't offend her. I heard her little chuckle before I saw her. I felt my body tense up and my mind started running a mile a minute. When she was within sight she didn't see me at first. Sight is our most pathetic sense. When she saw me, her eyes lit up like a silver candle, and her arms opened- a green wave of affection.
"Please," she began quietly, "Please just tell me what you haven't told me." Her wings changed from spiked to round, her voice from biting to pleading, her eyes from fighting to defending. I looked at her blankly, I thought I was dreaming.
Her arms were stronger than I had expected. I didn't think she was weak, but I had never received such a strong hug from a girl so thin. She was warm and smelled of food and light perfume. My face was in her curls and her hands rested on my back. She let me go and asked me if I volunteered here. I told her yes and she told me how sweet it was of me. The conversation paused as her grays searched my greens. She chuckled and said, "Your shirt matches my eyes and my shirt matches your eyes!" I smiled and said, "Yeah, I guess so." She looked so happy, young, and free. I asked her if she'd like a ride home and she told me she was planning on walking. I told her she wasn't out of my way and she thanked me for my kindness. It's true; she wasn't out of my way. More importantly, I just wanted to be close to her.
Her gray eyes rested on my neck and then they fell to the floor. A river of tears began spilling down her face and it was so much more than I could handle. I worried they might freeze there, and then I noticed that she wasn't shivering anymore. The ice around her soul melted and I was watching it stream out of her perfect, sad eyes.
When we got into the car and I had chipped the ice off of the windows, she began talking. And by talking, I mean really talking. Her voice chimed like little bells and she began telling me about her day and her week and her life and it all happened so fast I didn't even realize that I adored every bit of her. She was quiet and polite and strong and witty. Every sentence was well thought out and she was so happy I couldn't resist thinking she was the most amazing person I had ever met. Her words spilled over me like the warmest bath water with the most wonderful soap, filling my old pick-up truck with memories and details and enough chuckles to fill a large room. I began collecting those chuckles. They were the most wonderful things I had ever heard.
Her eyes covered me desperately when she looked up. They sparkled beautifully as they held the snow's reflection; they were big and silver and they pierced my heart like a steel knife. My damaged organ overflowed and my pores broke like damns; the sudden sweat made me feel cold. I was drowning in her snow-filled eyes and I just felt so cold.
When we pulled into her driveway, she hadn't stopped talking. I wasn't even sure if she was breathing. Her face still had a healthy pink tint, so I didn't worry too much. We sat there for an hour and just talked. The radio was playing softly but neither of us heard a word. I confess, when I say we talked, I mean she talked and I said a little here and there. I was not gifted with the art of speech. My voice is dark and husky but my ears are in great shape. I took everything in and with every chuckle she exhaled, a little more snow hid us from the world outside. It was a little dark in the car and I wondered if she was ever going to ask me my name.
"You..." I began. Her sad eyes hit mine and I thought for sure I was going to start crying from the impact. That warmth of sadness exploded in my chest as I tried to find my words again. "You mean a lot to me."
I asked her if she wanted to get some food or something and she smiled happily. "Would you like to come inside?" she asked. I said sure and we left the buried truck. Her house smelled of cinnamon and it was wonderfully warm. She led me to the kitchen and we began making our late dinner. She turned on the radio and danced to the light rock music. She sang along and her voice floated through the room and manifested in my brain. I could hardly think straight. She asked me to stir the pasta and I watched her as she walked out of the room.
I took a painfully deep breath, closed my eyes and said, "I really don't want you to leave. I know you think it's for best but I was hoping, maybe, I could be for the best."
After dinner she asked me if I'd like to watch a movie. I said sure and she put in The Princess Bride. It's her favorite movie and she knew every word. I couldn't help but pay more attention to her than the paid actors. She was so full of life. She was so beautiful.
She spread her arms and took me into her embrace. I almost died of surprise. I was so cold and she was so warm. I was sure I could get brain damage from the sudden change in temperature. Touch is my favorite sense.
After the movie we said our goodbye's and I was half way out the door when she said, "Wait!" I stopped and looked up the stairs into her gray eyes. "Will you tell me your name, now?" she asked. I thought for a moment and said, "I'll tell you my name as soon as you call me." She smiled and said, "My name is Addie." I smiled in return and told her, "I'll be waiting for your call, Addie."
Her arms were still around me and I really hoped that this embrace wouldn't end. She hadn't hugged me in 5 days and I was definitely going through withdrawal. This had to be the best relapse known to man.
She called me two days later. Her voice traveled directly to my ear and my brain didn't stand a chance. We talked for a few minutes about our days and then she asked me what I was doing that night. I told her all I had planned was sleep and she insisted that I go ice skating with her. I told her that I'd love to and she turned the tables and told me I could go under one condition: I had to tell her my name. "John." I said. I heard her light breathing and then she softly repeated, "John."
Her hold was looser now, but she still had her arms around my neck. Her face was buried in my chest and neither of us said a word. All I could hear was the unison of our heartbeats and the soft wind that floated over our heads. Sound is okay, but touch is still my favorite sense.
The arena was appropriately cold but neither of us noticed. She spun circles around me both literally and figuratively. I was finding it hard to believe that she actually wanted to spend time with me. She's a social butterfly and I'm relatively introverted. It didn't worry me at the time; I was too busy falling for everything about her. She teased me and talked to me, telling me that she was happy to be hanging out with me. She took my hand and started skating at my pace. She wore the greatest smile on her face. We left the ice and got some hot chocolate. We reached a table and put our cups down. She said she would be right back and I sat and thought for a moment. She was quite possibly the nicest, most beautiful girl I had ever met. I spent a lot of my time thinking about her and making her smile was always my top goal. Some teenage boys were playing catch near our table and on her way back one of them knocked her over. I ran over to her and she was holding her ankle. I asked her if she could walk and she said no in a pained voice. I left the untouched hot chocolate on the table and carried her to my truck.
She lifted her head out of my chest and stood on her tip toes. Her lips touched my neck and she paused there for a moment, before putting her head back to where it had been. A thousand wild butterflies exploded from my heart and out of my skin. I was definitely dreaming. There was no doubt about it.
I took her to her little home and addressed her ankle. It was swollen but she could move it and it still had flexibility, so it definitely wasn't broken. I treated her with ibuprofen and an ice bag. It took me a minute to realize that I was sitting on her bed with her. I didn't want her to get the wrong impression of me so I stood up and sat in a chair. She laughed and asked, "Is my bed not comfortable enough for you?" I wasn't sure what to say and she just chuckled. "Thank you for taking care of me. It's really sweet of you." I nodded and asked, "Do you live with anyone?" Her eyes looked down sadly and she shook her head. I didn't mean to make her sad, so I apologized. "No, it's fine," she said, "My parents owned this house for a long time and rented it out. They passed away and the house was in my name. I decided to move here after high school and enroll in the university. It's just been me and this house since July." I was taken by surprise and didn't really know how to respond. I told her I was sorry about her loss and she said not to worry about it. I reached out and held her hand. She thanked me again for spending time with her.
I closed my eyes tightly and opened them again. I was still standing in the freezing cold, holding the girl of my dreams. Maybe it wasn't a dream. She held me a little tighter and for a moment I thought she was shivering, until I realized she was crying.
Addie hurting her ankle was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don't mean that I wanted her to be in pain, but it was the greatest excuse to spend a lot of time with her. I took her to a doctor to get it looked at and he gave her a crutch and a brace to hold the ankle in place. He said she had twisted it pretty badly and she was lucky it wasn't broken. The boys who had knocked her over came to her house to apologize. They brought her balloons and chocolate. She was so happy and told them to not worry about it. She said they just gifted her both a nice vacation and chocolate. She gave each of them a high-five and they left with a little less guilt on their faces. I couldn't help but think she was the absolute greatest person I had ever met. I could nurse her back to health forever. A week into spending every day with her she asked me, "John, are you in love with me?" For once I responded without putting a single thought behind it. "Yes." I said. She smiled and I couldn't even help myself. She was laying on the couch watching The Princess Bride and I leaned over her and kissed her for the first time, right on the lips. She looked me dead in the eyes and said with Wesley, "As you wish."
I held her tighter and asked her not to cry. It was probably the worst thing to say; she started crying harder. I felt eternally terrible and I just wanted her to be happy. "Addie, I'm sorry. You're right. I should've told you from the start that it bothered me... but you were so happy and I was so conflicted." The tears steadily stopped and she took a step back and looked me dead in the eye. God, she was so beautiful, I thought I was just going to die right then and there, no questions asked.
The weeks turned to months and the next thing I knew it was summer vacation and we were in Florida, just the two of us. The days were long and every night we stayed up until dawn. We'd walk to the beach from the little house we rented and watch the sun come up. Every day, just like that. The sand was warm and the water was so beautiful when it was reflected in her gray eyes. Every day, I could never get enough of her. We walked through the forests and went to the theme parks. We watched the fireworks from the beach in celebration of Independence Day. On the anniversary of her parents' death she took out the urn they shared and threw a handful of them into the ocean. "Before they died, I had never thought about whether burying someone or cremating them was more appropriate. The truck that slid off the road and crushed them left their deceased faces in a state of pure terror. It was the most heartbreaking thing I had ever seen. I don't think I could live knowing they were in the ground like that. They had been in the middle of writing their wills when they passed away. They never finished their burial wishes, so it was all left up to me. They always loved to travel and they were actually driving home from the airport when it happened. I was the last person they talked to. They called me to tell me that they had landed safely and they wanted to meet me at their favorite restaurant. I hadn't seen them in two weeks. I'm so glad that the last thing I said to them was, 'I love you. Can't wait to see dad down a steak.' My Mom laughed and told me that they loved me, too. And then she hung up. I was late to the restaurant, but so where they." She paused. Her eyes were down but they were dry and strong like gray marble. She took a breath and then continued. "They had a map with all of the places they wanted to go. They were each 10 years away from retirement and they had a lot of money saved up to complete their bucket list. There are 23 places left on their list and I was 16 when they passed away. My mom was a foster child who never got adopted. My father was an only child like me. Both of his parents had passed away, so everything they had became mine. Everything. All of their possessions, all of their real estate, and all of their money only made me feel more absolutely alone. I decided that putting them in the ground somewhere wouldn't do them justice. They needed to keep travelling; they needed to make it to all of those beautiful places, together. This beach was on their list, and now they've made it here. 22 destinations left." She closed the urn and held it close to her broken heart.
I couldn't stand to look at her eyes so mine become full of the ground. She put her fingers under my chin and lifted it up. "John... you need to talk to me. Am I all alone here, or are you going to talk to me?" Her lips moved so slowly and the snow around us moved so quickly. There was never enough time to catch up. "Addie, I just want to be with you."
Our sophomore year of college began and our time together decreased. I was working another job and she started teaching swim lessons along with being a full-time student. She spent a lot of time with my parents and five siblings. They all adored her, and she always told me that they're like the family she never had. My youngest siblings would ask me where Addie was if I ever came home without her. You'd think she lived here, not me. The truth is that no matter how much my family loved Addie, I loved her more. The only problem was that sometimes I didn't know how to say it.
She stopped breathing for a moment. I know this because not a single part of her body moved. "What did you say?" she asked, quietly. "I just want to be with you." I repeated, louder. She looked down and ran her fingers through her hair. She looked so distressed. My voice hit her ears once more as I quietly repeated, "I just want to be with you." These soft words woke something up inside of her. She snapped. She put her hands on her hips and commanded, "Then get your head out of the clouds. Stop thinking about whatever you're thinking about and look me in the eyes and tell me what you know you need to tell me." God, she took my breath away. Every day, she just took it all away. I was going to suffocate soon. I couldn't stop thinking about how we got here. I couldn't get my mind out of the past. It was choking me, drowning me, killing me. The present and the past began a battle to the death in my mind. Every punch they threw at each other produced blood and everything they lost spewed out my mouth. "Addie, I adore you. God. I don't just adore you. Addie, I love you. I couldn't stand not seeing you every day so I moved in with you. I couldn't stand to see you upset so I never told you what you moving away would do to me. When they gave me options for promotion I said no if it meant leaving you. I am absolutely obsessed with you. I care so much about what you think and you make me the most vulnerable person to ever exist. I don't know how to tell you any of this because I hate words and they will never do these feelings any justice. I just..." I paused. All of this time I had been doing what she asked, except I wasn't looking her in the eye. I took in her grays and continued, softer now, "I love you. I do. I love everything from the freckle on your left shoulder to the indent on your right earlobe. I love the way you laugh and the way you sing. I want you to do what you need to do and I want you to be happy. I don't want to hold you back. But... God, I'm just so scared. I could stand being without you physically, but I couldn't stand losing you emotionally. I just couldn't do it, Addie. So, if you decide to go, I understand. If you've already decided that you're leaving then I guess I already understand. But... please, don't forget about me. Don't stop calling me. If you leave this place, I will always be waiting for you. If there's any chance I can go with you, we can figure it out. But, please, don't just get up and leave without another thought. That's way more than I could ever take."
She looked at me with the saddest eyes and asked, "Why haven't you told me any of this?" "Because I can't wake up," I said. "I can't wake up," I repeated. "John... John... please wake up. John, please don't leave me," She begged. Everything was bright and white and there were so many people around me. My head hurt and my body hurt and my heart hurt. "Don't leave me," I begged, "Don't leave me, Addie." I felt so small. I felt so weak. "John, I'm right here. John, I'm here. I won't leave you. I will never leave you." Addie said, frantically. Everything started going dark and I felt like I was falling. All of a sudden I was standing in a white train station. A train pulled up and the doors open. There was no sound. No one was in sight. I hate sight. It's our most pathetic sense. I hated it even more when I couldn't feel or hear anything. There was nothing else around. I started thinking about Addie. I thought of her face and her lips on my neck and I was so desperate to go wherever she was, so I closed my eyes. I closed my eyes and I meditated on her. I wished, and dreamed, and begged for her. The pain that followed was more pain than I thought was possible. Sound rushed at me so quickly it felt like silence. My eyes took in the bright lights and the doctor's faces and everything was clearer to me than anything had ever been. Everything hurt and I was breathing so quickly. I saw Addie standing a few feet away. The doctors became worried about how fast my heart continued to beat. "Addie," I said. Or at least tried to say. She walked closer and looked at me like I was a deceased friend. "Addie, I want to be with you forever." Addie's gray eyes spilled out tears and the biggest smile spread across her face. "Addie, please, please marry me." The doctors asked me to stop talking for my own health, but I didn't care. I was going to talk her ear off for the rest of our lives. I was going to tell her everything she deserved to hear and we were going to go to those 22 places and take her parents where they were meant to go. I began babbling and the doctors told me my truck had been hit by a bigger truck and that I should definitely start calming down. Addie asked me for the first time in our lives to please stop talking for a little while. She smiled and I smiled. "As you wish," I said.