Cecilia wasn’t there.
Every time Jared woke up it was his first thought, the first thing he was aware of.
He felt her absence sharply, like a thorn in his side, the lack of her once omnipresent heartbeat digging into his every thought, the jagged edge of a phantom itch he couldn’t scratch. He felt unanchored, adrift, aimless.
Hours turned into days and weeks and months, but the loss never got any easier for him. He could find no atonement, satisfaction, diversion or fulfillment for the hole left in him and he drifted, slack and lifeless along the life of the unemployed and forlorn, halfheartedly looking for work and cheap amusement, avoiding any engagement, professional, social or personal, more taxing than a trip to the bathroom for as long as possible. Even worse than the mornings, though, were the nights. They stretched, interminable and black and empty, lonely, in front of him and he never knew how he would make it to the other side.
The knocking continued as Manuela pulled the thin robe around her shoulders and made her way to the door. She looked through the peephole before she pulled the door open.
“Jared, how are you? You look terrible.”
“I’m ...” he trailed off. “It’s been hard.”
“Come on in, I’ve been worried about you.”
“You’re sure that’s okay? I don’t want to be any bother.”
“It’s fine. Get in here.” She pulled him in before pushing the door closed. “You want a drink? Have a drink, I’ve got a bottle of wine open.”
“Oh, I don’t want to show up and drink all of your wine.”
“You know me, Jared. I got the single lady size. I’ll be right back.”
Jared perched uncomfortable on the edge of a chair. Her apartment was barren and sterile as always. The rumpled throw over the arm of the couch seemed obscene and out of place, like Jared felt. A few magazines were arranged next to the wineglass on the otherwise empty coffee table, a low bookshelf held a vase of silk flowers, a handful of knickknacks and a few books, hardbound with matching spines. Cervantes was the only one Jared recognized. They didn’t look like they had been handled much. Some reality TV show, muted, entertained itself in the corner.
“This should do it, but we can always open another bottle if we need to.” Manuela came through the kitchen door with a magnum of wine with the cork stuffed back into the opening in one hand and an empty glass in the other. “So you’re here. What’s on your mind? I’m not the best shoulder to cry on, but I’m here.”
“Man, I don’t even know.” He accepted the glass from her before she topped off her own.
“Well, we can talk about anything, as long as you’re not going to beg me for your job. Things aren’t going so well at work. They’ll probably close the whole department soon. They’ve opened a call center in Milan. They said it’s just for customer service, but it’s just a matter of time.”
“No, I’m not interested in that at all.” Jared sank back into the chair as far as he could and looked at the wine in his hand. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“So, what are you doing with yourself these days? You think you’re close to finding some work?”
“No, I’m still pretty much a wreck.”
“Aw. That’s understandable. Nobody’s going to fault you for that. Take some time. Things are going to get better. You just have to wait for the right moment. You’re going to keep feeling bad for as long as you need to, then something will happen, you’ll look around and realize, hey, things are getting a little better.”
“I'm not sure that they will, though. Things are terrible now, yeah, but what's better? There's this terrible hole inside of me. I don't know if there's any way to fill it again. I don't even think it was full in the first place.”
“That's pretty bleak, Jared.”
Jared sighed and set down his glass. “Have you seen this?” He undid the buttons on his shirt as well as he could. His hands were shaking. “Do you know what this is?”
Manuela helped him with the buttons. They pulled his shirt open to show the long white scars on his torso from the surgery. “Oh, Jared. What did you do?”
“There's this thing in me, and there was a matching one in her. They let us feel each others' heartbeats all of the time. No matter where she was and what was happening, I knew I wasn't alone. But now I can't feel anything. Even worse than that, worse than feeling nothing, is feeling the absence, the void.” Manuela reached out to comfort him, but he stayed her hand. “I feel more empty than I ever thought possible, and I'm afraid that this is how I felt all along before. I feel alone like I've never felt, and when I look around all I see is this empty, barren waste-land of lonely people who hate their empty little lives. And now, I can see it inside of me too, and I don't know where I stop and the waste-land begins, or if it begins at all, or if everything has always been a waste.”
“You're not alone, though, Jared.”
Manuela gently pulled his hands away from his face and lead him to the couch. She put her arms around him and cradled him against her. “You're right here with me.” She felt the smooth, hard surface of his wrist console against her shoulder, and her hand touched one of the scars that reached around to his back. She flinched.
Her lips found his and drew him in. It had been a while, and he had changed, but he still felt familiar. The way he moved, and breathed, and touched her was the same. It felt comfortable, like it had months ago.
But Jared Lane wasn't there. Manuela's robe fell away and their bodies pressed together, but she could feel him resisting, not committing to the actions he was trying to perform. After a moment, he drew away completely.
“I'm sorry, Manuela.”
“For what, Jared?” He groped around on the floor for his shirt. “What's wrong?”
“I don't know. I just can't,” he struggled to escape from the tangle of her limbs. “I can't find my way back to a place where this feels okay.”
“I'm sorry, Jared. I should have known better.” She got up to follow him as he made for the door.
“No, don't be. Thank you for seeing me. I really appreciate it, all of this, but I've got to go.” He paused for a moment, leaned toward her just a little and looked like he might kiss her again.
He didn’t, though. He slipped out the door, his shirt still in his hand. After she'd watched him leave and closed the door behind him she noticed the old running shoes, muddy and battered nearly to death, he'd left behind.
She gave a little sigh before going back to the couch, picking her robe up off the floor and retrieving her wine glass and turning up the volume on the television.
In the shadows under the tree, there he was again.
“There he is.”
“That guy over there. I've seen him around before. He looks homeless, but I've never seen him asking for money or anything. Have you ever seen him?”
“I've seen him. Why? You worried or something?”
“I dunno. It's hard. You see somebody around a few times and don't think anything of it, but then you come home one day and he's naked in your bathroom, eating the hair out of your brush. You think I should be worried?”
“I don't think so, but you can't be too careful, you know.”
Satisfied, the woman took her coffee and left, to work, probably to some job that barely qualified as work, Barton mused.
There were no customers waiting, so he waved at the man under the tree. “Mr. Lane. You want a cup of coffee?”
Jared was startled, hadn't expected anyone to acknowledge him there, had pictured himself perfectly blended into the anonymous pandemonium of the busy street. He wasn't, though. He left the tree and walked over to Barton's coffee cart.
“Haven't talked to you around in a long time, Mr. Lane. It looks like your place in the world has changed,” he said, holding out a steaming cup. “I hope it's a change for the better.”
“Thank you,” Jared replied. “It has changed a lot.”
“That accident on Harvey Street, that was your lady, wasn't it?” Jared answered by way of nodding. “Well, you have my condolences, Mr. Lane. Terrible thing.” He pause to look Jared up and down, took in his sallow complexion, drawn face, ragged clothes. “How are you holding up?”
“About as well as can. I feel like I've lost everything, something huge, something I was never supposed to have, and now I don't know what to do without it. Things just can't go back to the way they were before. It's like I've seen behind the curtain, seen the miserable fucking waste-land of my little life with eyes unshaded for just a moment, and now I can't go back to pretending those things that mattered before are important, or even worth while. I can't make myself into the person I was before.”
“You can spend your whole life looking for clarity, Mr. Lane, the whole thing, or you can have it fall into your lap, or it can be forced on you whether you want it or not. Doesn't matter how you get it, problem's the same. No one tells you how to cope with it. Even if they do, it doesn't help. How are you going to deal with it?”
“That's a good question. I don't see anything to do but to keep my head down and keep going, keep looking for a way to somewhere that feels like home. If I don't what will happen? I can try to go back to aping some happiness I can't feel and don't believe in until I can't stand to breathe any more, or I can let it all crush me, like another dirty little flower pushing through the cracks in the sidewalk. The world is crumbling and rotten, and there's no use pretending it's not.”
Jared paused for a long moment. Well, I'd better go. What do I owe you? I need a paper too.”
“It's on me today, Mr. Lane. Oh,” Barton remembered some of his original purpose as he handed Jared the folded daily, “that girl who left right before I called you over. Be careful there. I don't know if you're following her, or if you're just trying to work up the courage to say hello, or what, and it's not my place to tell you what you should do one way or the other, but she's seen you around, and she's starting to think you might be a creeper.”
“Oh.” Jared blushed a little at this. “Thanks, I'll keep that in mind.”
As Lane turned and walked away Barton inhaled, took in the first green hints of spring, listening to the individual melodies of a mad orchestra, the notes in the cacophony of the bizarre.
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