Smells Like Goodbye: The (Mostly) True Almost-Love Story

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Smells Like Goodbye


Every time I go to the gym, I think of Nathan. The smell of sweat, chlorine, and lemon-scented disinfectant floods my brain with his memories, beginning with the night we met. I remember it was cold enough to snow, but I was warmed with the laughter. The first time I saw him, he was wearing a Boston Red Sox hat and a Metal Militia jacket. Standing in the middle of Victoria’s Secret, he pressed a bra against his chest and said his first words to me: “Is this my size?” I laughed in response. It was my first laugh of the New Year. 


Later that same night, we shared our stories of the previous year. We admitted we had both recently ended a serious relationship with people who weren’t what we thought.


“Things will be different this year.” He said.


“Definitely.” I agreed.


Anyone who saw us together would have been able to see the glaring differences between us, as blazingly obvious as sunlight, but when we wrapped ourselves in the big blue blanket I kept in my truck, our shared warmth was the only light that mattered.


I remember for my birthday a few weeks later, we drove to Dallas. The snow from the day before seemed to conspire just for us, melting enough to ensure our safe travel, but sticking to the rooftops so we could revel in the Texas miracle. As I drove, he sang along to my favorite love songs as they played on the stereo, and when we arrived he played his guitar and sang the love song he wrote just for me. I still have the lyrics he wrote in the old journal he left behind, but I no longer remember the tune. Only the way his brown eyes glittered as he sang, and the way my heart began to beat his name. Na-than. Na-than. Na-than.


I remember the first night we slept together. His grandmother wouldn’t let him see me, so he had to wait for her to fall asleep. She didn’t like the color of my skin.


“White girls, all they do is take!” She said. “I’ll kill myself if you keep seeing her.”


He was scared to lose her, but even more scared to lose me so he pushed his old Dodge Ram into the street so the rumbling engine wouldn’t wake her, and drove to my house across town. It was four o’clock in the morning on a school night, and he had a huge welt on his shoulder from the force of pushing the truck, but still he arrived. We made love underneath the colored christmas lights dangling over my bed, and talked about how we had committed the perfect crime: I had stolen his heart, and he had stolen mine. 


We had barely been dating for a month when his grandmother kicked him out, and my family took him in like he had belonged with us all along. All the pieces of his life filled the remaining space between us until there was only one life, ours


I remember when he was applying for college, he called his grandmother. She had papers he needed to complete his application. We had spent weeks perfecting his application, and there was no doubt in our minds he would get in. We just needed the papers from his grandmother.


“College?” She laughed. “What, you a white boy now?”


He decided his education wasn’t worth the fight, and when the deadline to apply passed, he decided to join the Army. When he needed the same papers for his Army application, his grandmother surrendered on the spot.


“I’m proud of you, son.” She said because she always expected he would end up with a gun in his hands. It was the family tradition. 


I remember the months before he left for bootcamp, we went to the gym every single day to train. Running, swimming, pushing, pulling, lifting, struggling for hours, but never finishing. We were never satisfied. Better was always right around the corner; best was always out of reach. Our mutual mission of perfection was always incomplete.


I remember all the nights of whispered phone conversations, secrets, and walls that kept me out. We shared the same bed, but we were worlds apart. Sometimes, our worlds would connect in a way that would make it all worth it. Most times, our worlds were at war.


“Why won’t you marry me?” I asked him as he dressed for work.


“I’m not sure you’re the one.” He said. “I want it to be right.”


I remember when the weight of the secrets of all the things we left unsaid became too much to bear. The words began leaking from my skin, sending my body into seizure-like convulsions. 


“I can’t hide anymore.” I said.


He called an ambulance and slept with my best friend. I woke in the hospital alone. I was alone for three days.


I returned home with the promise of peace, but Nathan wasn’t as ready as I was to speak. The secrets still piled up high every day, and the words left unspoken hurt worse than the things we could say. In and out of the hospital I went, each visit worse than the last. Each time I was released with a clean bill of health because I hid the worst parts where nobody could find. Not even Nathan, who stayed by my side, could find all the words I kept buried inside.


“Stop hiding.” said the doctor. “The stress is making you sick.”


It was the sweetest thing I could ever hear, to be given permission to say what I feel. But by then time had passed, and Nathan would too soon have to leave. We both had a duty to fulfill our destiny. We both had to prepare to transform.


I remember when he left for bootcamp, he took part of me with him, and I tried to fill the spaces he left on my own. I filled the graveyard shift he’d abandoned at the corner store down the street, the clothing he left behind, and all the extra space on the bed. It was weeks before I heard from him. One letter, one line: I want to marry you and hold you in my arms forever. He had finally decided it was right. I was beginning to wonder if I was sure.


I remember he was allowed to call me the day I picked out my wedding dress. I spun around and around in the fluffy white dress, and my grandmother cried and my mother took too many pictures that he wasn’t allowed to see.


“I bet you look beautiful.” He told me through the phone. “I can’t wait to see you. Just three more months!”


It had already been four.


I remember the plane ride to Missouri to watch his graduation from bootcamp. I wore a tight red dress, and smeared makeup on his blue jacket when he hugged me. 


“You ruined my best suit!” He said, and wiped frantically at the smudge.


“I missed you.” I said, but he was too panicked to hear.


Seven months I spent filling the empty spaces he left behind. I had transformed and so had he, but our transformations had left us too complete. Without any spaces left to fill with our love, we were broken in two.


He held my hand the whole way home, and we both pretended that we didn’t know it was time for us to say goodbye and let go. We broke up the night before our wedding day, and I drove around the city for hours so I wouldn’t have to watch him walk away. By the time I returned, what had once been ours was nothing but a pile of mine. I cried for days and mourned for months, but eventually the pain faded and became a memory.


Now, when I walk through the gym doors, I remember. 


I remember a love both strong and shattered that intwined two souls while at the same time tearing them apart. And in case I ever forget, I keep the few small tokens of memory he left behind in a box labeled valuables: a wallet-sized picture of a boy with baby-fat cheeks and brown eyes smiling proud in a uniform of camouflage green; a diamond heart on a silver chain; and the last goodbye, written on a stationary-set envelope in black ink and sprinkled with invisible tears.


Good-bye, my love. I can never forget you and the joy you brought me. I mean when I say that you are my one and only. You will always be in my heart. Please never forget me. Maybe we will cross paths again. May God bless you.
Nathan.

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