a small, wounded thing

One summer, I work behind the counter of a cafe, where men in suits and power ties come in and chat with me as they do with young girls of a certain disposition. I am offered a job. Not far from the cafe, in an office in the basement of an old house. I file papers. Maintain mailing lists. Type letters and documents from his handwritten notes. I spend hours there alone, surrounded by file boxes and samples of soaps and shampoos that I think he is trying to sell. I don’t know really the nature of his work and it does not matter. He pays me in cash at the end of each week and after the noise and chatter of the cafe, I find that I crave the cool silence of his basement where, after the filing is done and before he returns from wherever it is he spends his afternoons, I can read the slim books of poetry I carry with me or even sometimes, rest my head on the desk and sleep lightly until I hear his footfall as he descends the creaky wooden stairs.

I have just started dating B. If he is not working, he drives by in the late afternoon to pick me up and we have tacos and drink beer at the Mexican restaurant above the shoe store. Or if we are feeling flush, we head downtown and kill the evening hours playing pool in the smoky bar where the locals, who sit nursing their watered-down drinks, watch us as we chalk our pool sticks. Later, we stumble down the stairs to the street and wander around in the dark, smoking the last of our cigarettes before heading home.

We share an apartment with friends from college. None of us have jobs that we care about. We stay up late and then sleep till well into the morning.

I am drawn at first to his sadness. There is a small, wounded thing in him and I want nothing more than to nurse it back to health.

In the end, when we know it is over, he cries once. His head on my lap, my hand in his hair. He says, “What if this is just who I am? What if I never get better?”

“You don’t need to get better,” I say, “You are fine as you are. It is us, together, that is not right.”

“But we were supposed to make each other better,” he says. “Don’t you remember, you said that? That we could take what was broken and fix it? You said that was what love could do.”

“I was wrong,” I say, and now I am crying too. “I am sorry that I was so wrong.”

Several years ago, after the divorce, but long before I am ready to hear it, a friend, in anger, says this: “You can’t keep going like this. You don’t give yourself time to grieve. You have these losses - your mother, your father, your husband - and you just go on to the next thing.“

I have done something to hurt her. Disappointed her in some way that I don’t fully understand. We are at a restaurant for dinner and our plates have just arrived. She pauses to let the waiter step away.

She drops her voice to a whisper, leans in toward me across the table. “It’s like you don’t mourn people, you just keep trying to replace them,” she says.

She picks up her fork, points it at me, “and I refuse to be a part of your little collection.”

I have a breadstick in my hand. I put it down on my plate. I lift my napkin from my lap, bring it to my mouth. Then I fold it, place it on the table. I take my purse from where it is hanging on the back of my chair. I stand up, push my chair back in, and walk out.

After several weeks in the basement office, I grow bored. One afternoon, I don’t show up at my usual time and nothing happens. No phone call. No angry messages. And so the next day, I stay home too. A week passes and then two. At the end of the second week, he calls.

“I don’t know what you’re going through,” he says. “I don’t know who you’re hanging out with and it’s none of my business. I have daughters. I have a wife who has been in and out of the hospital her whole life. All I’m saying is to make sure someone in your life is taking care of you.”

I am sitting on the edge of my bed, holding the receiver in one hand, my head in the other. I say nothing.

“Are you listening? Do you know what I mean?” he asks. “Someone should be taking better care of you.”

I hang up as B. comes in from the kitchen.

“Who are you talking to?” he asks.

“Wrong number.”

Shortly before my daughter is born, we spend the day near the water in a little seaside town. It is early July and hot. We walk up and down the main street past the ice cream shops and the tourist traps. I am huge and awkward. I move slowly. Every few minutes, B. asks, “Don’t you want to sit down? Don’t you want to stop walking?”

I shake my head. I need to keep moving.

Finally, it is so hot and I am so tired that when he asks do I want to find somewhere to sit down, I say yes, and he takes a few steps down the block looking for a place to accommodate us. He points to a coffee shop across the street and spins back around to take my arm. He doesn’t realize how close I am standing to him, and in his haste, he bumps my head with his elbow and I lose my balance, fall to the ground. I sit there for a moment, stunned and shaken. He cries out and is all motion - arms flailing. He reaches out to pull me up, but I say, wait. Wait.

People are walking by - couples and families with children in strollers and they have to maneuver around me, sprawled there on the sidewalk.

“You should get up,” he says, gently at first, then with increasing urgency.

“Don’t you want to get up? Here let me help you up.”

“Get up,” he says, but I hear his voice like he is far away.

“Get up, get up, get up.”

Once the decision has been made, I stay in Providence, find a new apartment. A yellow house on a quiet, dead-end street with a front porch and a grassy lawn out front. He lets his hair grow long. Gets a series of tattoos up and down his arms. Piercings. The change in his physical appearance is so dramatic and so rapid that it is difficult not to feel as though I have been holding him back.

As if what had once been wounded and small is now large and fierce and has been waiting, caged, to be released.

“I’m sorry,” I say at one of our many court dates. We are standing outside the entrance to the courtroom, waiting.

He shrugs. “Don’t be,” he says. It is like looking at someone I have never seen before. “You were right when you said I didn’t need to be fixed.”

Then he laughs. A loud, hollow sound that echoes in the quiet corridor before he says: “I’m not the one who is broken.”