His first love starts and ends in the middle of January, where the cold and hunger and bitterness crash down all at once.
His toes are being kissed by the cold as he curls themselves into his feet, trying to gain some semblance of warmth, but the warmth never comes. Instead he hopes. He hopes for a blanket, a warm cup of soup, and maybe if he plays the homeless act well he just might be able to get a few sympathy coins. He scoffs at that thought and scratches through dirt-filled locks of blonde, only in New York City, only in New York City. He’s not the only homeless one around.
Still, he hopes for better days, where he has a steady stream of customers looking to buy his canvases and his cheap time, but right now there is a hole in his stomach and nothing to fill it with but dread and numbness. The sunsets he watches under the bridge are disappearing, and the paintbrush in his hand feels old, with bristles and paint being chipped away at the edges like broken china, which is a sad, sad thing. He doesn’t have any money, or anything he could call his. All he has is an old canvas and a chipping paintbrush and broken pencils and pastel paints the color of sadness. Truly, a pitiful sight. Maybe he’ll resort to stealing. That piece of bread in that woman’s bag looks very appealing at the moment. . .
He looks up with dead eyes, and his bread hitches. It’s a girl, a girl around his age with oceans for eyes and chestnut hair tangling itself with the wind, and he may be disoriented from the lack of food in his stomach and the cold kissing his skin, but he can’t help but think for a second that this is what glory looks like. In the form of dazzling azure orbs and over sized fleece sweaters and long, tan trousers that go down her ankles. Yes, yes, this must be glory.
“You look like the most miserable person in the world,” she says again. His fifteen year old self can’t comprehend, but a moment later he registers the words and exhales a cluster of wisps.
“Wouldn’t be sad if I wasn’t always hungry,” And cold. And tired. He doesn’t need that to be pointed out, so he raises a hand in an attempt to shoo her away. Just when he is about to slam his palm down to the floor and envelop himself in another cocoon of solitude, he stops, because then he hears something phenomenal.
She's laughing. Laughing, a boyish, velvet rich sound that rattles her frame and causes her lips to quirk into something lop-sided. It’s a sound he hasn’t heard for a long time, even more so from someone else’s mouth, and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s gotten sympathetic gestures and pity coins, but this, this is something he can’t even comprehend. With her head tilted back and the winter sun wrapping her up in a sort of sunlit blanket of warmth, and her eyes lighting up with a spark that makes his spine shiver and his knees go weak; a hilarious, maniacal laugh.
And then his shoulders shake, his breath hitches, and he chokes out something from his mouth and watches it dissipate into the air in a blaze of wisps and frost. It starts something funny in his chest, a good feeling, so he repeats it. Again, and again, and again, and then before he knows it it’s his head tilted back and laughing something broken and raw and alive. With his hands clutching at his sides and the funny feeling inside of his chest receding into small giggles and laughs, he looks at her, the girl who is still laughing and loved by the sun.
He makes a resolution then, swallowing the lump in his throat and smoothing out the cracks in his raspy voice, “Can I draw you?” There is lost hope somewhere in there, and he hopes that she treads lightly.
She laughs again and smiles something sweet, a symphony of sugar and spice and everything nice. His heart flutters, and then he realizes he doesn’t know her name.
She asks to be painted in pastel colors of happiness.
“I only have blue,” he says as red dusts his cheeks. The bench is cold against his legs but she offers no sympathy, and he’s okay with that.
She throws a glance against his battered paints and then presses her lips together, thoughtful and concentrated, and he uses this time to watch the veil of eyelashes shadow her eyes, the curve of her face morphing against her thoughts, the cupid’s bow of her bottom lip curving into a smile, and her bottom nose wrinkling, once, twice, and then a third time, and the curve of her lips extending into something that feels like home.
“What do I look like?” She asks him. He begins to open his mouth, begins to say that she has eyes that sparkle and a dainty face and pianist hands and a cupid’s bow for lips, and then he gets it.
Her eyes gleam the color of sapphire, and she whispers, “Draw.”
His hand is moving, his eyes are wandering, down her face, over her body, and then back to the canvas. He’s painting a visual, an interpretation of the glory he sees, and he hopes he knows. His hands are digging into the paper so hungrily, fervently, trying to draw something that will be everlasting and forever engraved into his mind because she is glory in a fleece sweater and long trousers, and he thinks he is painting beauty. He doesn’t know why, but he has an idea on why he’s clinging onto this small light. It’s bright, and warm, and feels like home, and he’s never felt like this before.
She’s fidgeting on the bench when he’s done, and he knows she wants to dart around and stretch her toes and flex her hands, but just one more minute, he thinks. One more minute so that he can take in what he sees.
He doesn’t allow himself one minute though, he only stands up from the bench and tells her to close her eyes.
“Finally,” she breathes. He can feel her smile reach his lips, and then sucks in a breath before turning the piece around.
Her eyes flutter for a moment before settling on the canvas before her, and stares. She stares and stares with unbelievably sharp eyes and suspenseful silence, and then she sends a look that makes him shudder.
“I’m beautiful,” she whispers. He nods.
“You are.” He doesn’t know what else to say, and suddenly he’s unsure of his words. But then she laughs again, and it rattles his teeth and quiets the monster in his belly. She gestures for his pencil, pointing at the broken object in his hand with a slender finger. He hands it over and watches in a daze as she settles herself next to him, brushes against his shoulder, and begins to place the pencil back into his hand and wrap her fingers around his right wrist.
“No, no,” she says with a wistful smile, “not like that. Like this.” The fingers holding his skinny wrist are scorching as she leads his hand in a trance, gliding the pencil over her face, tearing off her perfect smile and perfect teeth until his lines end at her toes, and he sees the real her.
“This is me,” she says, “This is me.”
And she smiles again. Bright, warm, and beautiful. The sun shines on her skin, enveloping her in a veil of sparkling stardust and bright yellow, and he thinks he understands now. There is a spark that ignites in his heart at this very moment and he is burning, burning, burning. This is love, he thinks, and then looks back to what she said—This is me. This is me—and shakes his head. No. . .no.
She stands up again and throws him a few dollar bills, “Take it,” she says, “you saw me.”
In a flail of emotion, he immediately stands up as well and grasps her hands, and then stops. He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to introduce himself and tell her how beautiful she is but no. . .no, he doesn’t. His heart is beating miles per minute and his cheeks are as red as cherries and the question of her name is on the very tip of his tongue but he won’t say anything.
His perception of the world was blurred; an illusion of beauty and expectations that he’s always wanted to see, and she was the one who opened his eyes.
He doesn't want to be that disillusioned person again. He wants to love her without a name and watch her leave his life with a laugh and a smile and a blaze of fire. So he holds it all back and spends his last seconds holding her hands and remembering how she smells and how the curve of her mouth goes up a bit more than the other and how the light reflects off of her sapphire colored eyes, and he wants to carve this moment of ephemeral beauty into his mind until it leaves a burn on his soul and he becomes nothing more but a person who was once in love.
She looks at him with questioning eyes, “Yes?” She says with another smile.
He swallows, breathes through his nose, and lets go of the questions on his tongue and the dates under the bridge and the possible future that could’ve been.
“Thank you,” he says instead, so sincerely, so unnaturally like his bland exterior and ice-cold hungry heart. He is on the verge of a nuclear explosion right now, with emotions presenting themselves in a symphony of fireworks and noise as he channels everything into those two words that could’ve been something else, but they aren’t mean to be that way. He can’t express “I love you” and “be with me forever” to this girl, this woman who blazes through life with her sparkling insight and genuineness. She’s not the one, he thinks. She’s not the one. He’s failed to see that before. She’s not the one who he can spend an eternity with and she’s not the one who he can share all of his scars with—and he’s not the one who can make her the happiest even if she is so, so beautiful.
So he says it. Again. And again. And again.
“Thank you,” I loved you. “Thank you.” We could’ve been a forever. “Thank you.” You don’t have to stay. “Thank you.” For making me see the real you. “Thank you.” Thank you for coming into my life.
The sunset in the background illuminates her figure in streams of red and yellow stardust, and she seems to understand some of what he’s saying, if not all of it, because a tear slips from her eyes and drips onto her clothes and she is smiling a smile unlike those he has seen in the past hour, and she might be crying for the both of them because where she is going he will not be able to follow, for she is fire. She will blaze through life and leave with ashes and glory and the feeling of warmth. To him, he believes that this one moment is better than an everlasting bind of marriage. If she stays with him, a boy who still needs to learn how to see the Real in people, then she’ll only burn out.
He holds her hand for the longest time. He stares into sapphire, and she crinkles her eyes at dark chestnut.
“I’m sorry.” She says, “This is all I can do.” She doesn’t ask for his name or say her own, and he’s okay with that. He’s loved her without one.
Something splits his mouth open into a crinkled smile, “Thank you.”
She smiles again, remnants of embers and a dream that never came to be. His heart flutters at that motion and twists when she turns around, converse shoes tapping away to somewhere he won’t be able to reach.
The background becomes a jumbled mess as she walks off into the sunset, with his old dreams and expectations, and something that could’ve been. As her back slowly disappears off into the horizon, he tips an invisible hat, spins around to his corner, and remembers her just moments ago: a blaze of fire, scintillating tears, and glory.
“Thank you, thank you.”