"I am writing graffiti on your body—
I am drawing the story of
How hard we tried.
How hard we tried.
And I am watching your chest rise and fall
Like the tides of my life, and the rest of it all.
And your bones have been my bed frame,
And your flesh has been my pillow,
I've been waiting for sleep to offer up the deep
With both hands.
Oh, with both hands."
-Ani DiFranco, Both Hands
I am mixing a batch of oatmeal cookies, when I hear the sounds traveling through the vents—they float from the apartment above down into my own, and I have long given up trying not to listen. Both of my husbands always told me I was too nosy for my own good, and maybe they were both right. But, as I spoon the cookies onto the baking tray and put them in the oven, I can't help but think about everything I've heard through that vent these past three years.
The truth is, I have never heard so much coming out of an apartment before, not in all the places I've lived, and there have been so many places. So much music, so much love, so much sorrow, so much laughter, and so much rage I've heard through these vents. There were nights I would mute the TV, the soft blue glow the only thing illuminating my apartment, and listen to the music that came floating down from their apartment, always love songs. Or sad songs. I don't know much about music, but I can tell the truth when I hear it.
So much joy emanated from that apartment, and yet, still so much pain.
I've heard it all tonight, in fact, but it feels different somehow; you don't get to be my age and alone without recognizing the different ways sadness can sound, how it can infiltrate every moment, seep into all the cracks, even the ones you thought you'd sealed. You become something of an expert on it, really. You eventually understand how it can provide an undercurrent to laughter, to music, to even love.
As I set the timer on the oven, I hear low moans floating down—I recognize them immediately as the end of ecstasy. Perhaps I should be embarrassed, but I am an old woman who has watched one husband leave her and held another's hand as he left this world, so I guess it could be said that I just don't have it in me anymore to feel things like shame or embarrassment anymore. They are, as I have learned, the most useless emotions, practically speaking.
. . .
He is still inside of her when she collapses on top of him. She buries her head into the crook of his neck, and her bare breasts are pressed against his chest. They are both breathing heavily, their limbs tangled together. There are tiny wet spots on his chest, and she swipes them away with her fingers—neither of them talks about the fact that they are her tears, neither of them acknowledge that she is still crying, and that he is about to start.
Instead, they are silent as she adjusts herself, and he slips out of her. Vaguely, she wonders how many times she has been here, curled up next to him. In the early days, everything was so new to her—everything was so new to her, but even after her first time – not just with him, but ever – she felt at ease lying against him, the sheets pulled up around them, her hand feeling his heart beat wildly in his chest.
She could chart her life by this man; he has been there that long.
He has been home to her, even outside of these four walls that now surround them—the ones that feel like they're closing in on her now, with the weight of what is happening within them.
Her eyes fall to his chest, and she watches him breathe. After what happened with his best friend, she is so thankful that she can still watch his lungs take in air, even just from the outside. Right after it happened, when things got so bad, she would watch him sleep and wish she could crawl inside his skin to make sure he was okay, to make sure his body knew how to process things properly—to make sure it knew there was someone on the outside who wanted him, who needed him to heal. She wanted to make sure his body knew that she was there, that she had always been there. So, she would press herself close to him while he slept, trying to get the message across.
But, this is the last time. She knows it, and so does he, but they haven't really talked about it because his bags are packed and he leaves tonight, actually. And she's breaking the lease, and moving in with her sister because she can't stand to be in this place without him.
She runs her finger along his arm, and she is struck by the sudden urge to mark him—so she traces words along his bicep, and she wonders if he can tell what she's writing. I love you. Always. She pretends it's a scar that anyone who comes after her will be able to see, and suddenly she remembers a conversation they had two years ago:
"I want to love you so well that if any woman comes after me—"
"There won't be anyone after you, baby." She looked at him then, she knew enough about the world to know that 'never' was just as hard to promise as 'forever.' "Even if there is, there won't be. You're it."
She looks up at him now, and she sees the tears on his face, wonders if he's thinking of that same conversation, and she thinks she should say something, but she can't think of what it should be, of what it could be.
So, she just whispers, "Shhh." Even though he's not saying anything, but she sees him smile a little, and he tries to pull her closer to him, but it's a physical impossibility. Not that those limitations have ever stopped them before. They both, she knew, never knew it was even possible to love another person this much, in so many right and wrong ways, in so many complex and simple ways, in so many sad ways. Yet, here they were—on this, their last night.
There is a buzzing through the apartment, and they both tense. She knows who it is, she knows it's 7pm on the dot because no one is late for intake, but they can't move. Yet, somehow they do, and she throws her tank top and shorts on, and he is pulling his jeans over his hips, his t-shirt over his body.
Too soon, he's at the door with his duffle bag, and she's standing there next to him, their empty apartment screaming at them that all of this is too soon. It's been a long, drunken time coming, but it's still all too soon. He puts his arm around her waist, and she tilts her head up to him and they kiss each other on the lips. He tastes like salt, and so does she.
Of all of their kisses, this will always be her least favorite.
"I love you," He whispers, and it's so loud in their apartment that she swears he's screaming it, but it's the softest his voice has been all year.
"I love you." She can barely speak through her tears, but somehow she does.
They look at each other once more, before he pulls the door open—she waits for him to say it, but he doesn't. She is thankful for that, and she doesn't say it either, she can't.
It's when the door closes with a soft click that she hears it: the unmistakable sound of goodbye.
She stares at the door for a moment, before she makes her way into the bedroom. Her eyes run over the walls, and she thinks how bare they look without their pictures and posters on them.
There's a hole in the wall, made from his fist a few months back. She runs her fingers over it, watching the powder of the plaster fall to the carpet. She feels a sudden urge to make another one, to match, but she just peels the plaster back a little and presses her hand deep into the hole—she will never not want to be somewhere he has been, even if that place is laced with anger, tainted with rage.
She walks to where his nightstand used to be, and she sees faded blue ink on the wall—the memory comes full force: a humid night three years ago, their first summer in this apartment. They were in bed together, kissing and touching, and the lyrics just came to them; they hadn't unpacked everything yet and couldn't find paper fast enough, so he just picked up a blue pen lying on his nightstand next to the bed and wrote the lyrics on the wall. She'd laughed, her eyes shining, and they swore they'd never paint over it. It's one of her favorite memories, actually, and one of her favorite songs.
Running her finger over them now, tracing them with her fingernail, she thinks about how the landlord will paint over them with eggshell white paint in the coming days. She thinks about how new tenants will move in and how these people will not know the history that is literally written on the walls where they sleep. But, she thinks, it will still be there, just under the surface.
That's how everything will be for them now, how everything will be for them now, she and him. Still there, under the surface.
She sits on the bed, then, and she starts to cry—the sobs wrack her body and she feels like she can't breathe except in gasping breaths. The carpet will be cleaned, and the walls will be painted, but she knows that this overwhelming sadness is seeping into the walls, and will stay there for years to come. She'd feel sorry about it, if she could feel anything but the gaping loss of him.
. . .
The cookies are on the cooling racks when I hear it, the sobbing. It is a desperate sound, and I can only remember crying once like that in my entire life. It's the sound only a broken heart can have you make.
I do the only thing I can: scoop the cookies onto a plate, and make my way up to the apartment above me. My knees don't do the stairs very well, but I take them one by one.
I have seen the girl a few times, though I mostly stay inside my apartment these days. She is a petite thing, but tall, with red hair and freckles, a friendly face, and kind eyes, though I've never seen their color.
I knock on the door, and the sobbing stops—I hear her walk to the door, and I see the peephole darken as she looks through it. The door swings open, and I feel my heart constrict at the raw sadness on her face.
"I'm sorry," She says, swiping at her face, "Was I too loud?"
I look at her then. She can't be a day older than twenty-nine, but her eyes are much older than that. They're blue. I've never complained about the noise, and I shake my head.
"I just made some cookies, and I thought…" I stretch the plate out.
She takes them from me, and I can tell she's trying to smile, but it looks more like a grimace.
There is a privilege that comes with being old. Most things that happen with age, they're not so good—you get random hairs, you get random wrinkles, your bones start aching in ways you didn't even know were possible. So does your heart, for that matter. But, when you are old, as I am, you are allowed to take certain liberties, and people just grant them to you—one of these liberties is free advice. You can drop nuggets of wisdom, and people will either pick them up or leave them be, but they never stop you from talking about what you know about life. There is something, they figure.
I know he has left. I saw him walk to a hired car, and I know where he is headed.
"It'll be okay, sweetie," I tell her.
The tears start fresh, and I can't help but think she is pretty even when she cries. Sometimes, you will find, it is easier to talk to a stranger than those closest to you. So I am not surprised when she speaks through her tears.
"I just… We tried so hard. And now I don't know what to do." She says, staring at me, but somehow not looking at me.
I reach out and pat her on the arm, knowing she won't eat my cookies, not tonight, and not tomorrow. "Feel the pain," I tell her, "And then let it go. Let him go."
I turn and walk away from her then, knowing what only someone my age can know: She won't, because she can't. She never will.
It is when I close the door to my first floor apartment that I realize she knows it, too. That is why her blue eyes are so much older than she is.