If, p.23

If, page 23



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  “I never said I wished I hadn’t met you. That time, despite being poor and struggling, they were some of the best months of my life. That’s why I had such a hard time. It wasn’t that I wished I never met you, it was that I wished you had never gone away.”

  Ash wiped away a single tear with the pad of his thumb, and goose bumps raised along my arms and chest. My breathing skipped and he felt it. I could tell by the way the dark lashes around his green eyes fluttered. He cupped the back of my neck softly and hugged me. I chose to stop resisting and just allowed myself to let go of the bitterness I felt. It was only weighing me down.

  His lips grazed the shell of my ear and caressed my cheek. I thought to pull away, to leave him like he left me. But it was not what my heart or body wanted. It’s not what they needed.

  I needed that one last time. Just one more time. I had begged for that on the many nights I had cried myself to sleep.

  I tilted my lips up to meet his and the kiss quickly grew from soft to something carnal. Like two people who knew the key to ending the never-ending emptiness was somewhere inside the other, and we had to consume each other to find it.

  Ash boosted me onto the counter, nearly ripping my tights as he pulled them off of me.

  Panting, grabbing, moaning, thrusting, sweating, tears.

  We tried to make up for everything we had missed. We tried to hurt each other. We tried to heal each other’s pain.

  This was wrong. This what not going as I had planned. But when it came to Ash, nothing ever did.


  I had her in my arms again. Holding Bird was like holding the universe in your arms, with all its infinite brightness and possibility rolled into one person.

  As I thrust into her, I was flooded with all the overlapping sensations in a way that only she could trigger. A transparent streaming rainbow of light swept us in its racing color. I was engulfed in a soft warmness, like being wrapped in a pelt of fur on a cold winter night. I tasted the sweet mix of her mouth and nectar combined with the saltiness of her tears. She was ambrosia.

  I clung to Bird like if I let her go, the stream of light would sweep her away and reclaim her, and I would never see her again. I couldn’t let her go again. And I understood the pain I had put her through because I feared going through it myself now that I had her back in my arms.

  Afterward, we lay on my couch, sprawled limbs under a disheveled blanket. Like those nights when we made our art together, it felt like time would just stop existing and we could be here forever.

  “I want to show you something,” I told her as I ran my finger down her silky skin.


  “Just wrap yourself in the blanket,” I said, sliding on some jeans. I led her to the other end of my loft, to a spiral staircase that led to my private rooftop deck.

  “Walls,” she muttered knowingly.

  “Walls,” I called back.

  “Do you sleep up here?”

  “Sometimes. There’s winter here, you know?” I smirked.

  I went around and turned on the outdoor heaters. It was early fall, still warm, but there was a chill in the air after the rain.

  “That’s nice,” she whispered.

  “Those were some of my favorite times. The fact that you understood me enough to just let me be up there. That you would sleep up there with me.” I plopped some dry cushions onto one of the sofa frames.

  “It always felt like we were just camping under the smog,” Bird chided. “We were just urban pioneers.”

  I kissed her shoulder. I kept finding ways to touch her, to reassure myself this wasn’t a hallucination. I couldn’t believe she was here, that this was real.

  We sat in silence, her between my legs just like we used to do on her roof, watching different lights turn on and off in the buildings around us and the flashing lights of planes flying overhead.

  “You know, I thought I was pregnant for a while just after you left.”

  Her words flashed like a sword in the night.

  “Bird . . . if I ever had thought that was a possibility, I would never—”

  “I know. At least I think I do. I don’t even know why I am telling you this. Maybe it’s petty of me to pile on the guilt. I just—I was so scared at the time—and you would have been the person I would have leaned on. I didn’t tell Jordan because he was my boss and I’m glad I didn’t because I wasn’t. It was amenorrhea from the tough schedule and the stress.”

  My body felt like a weight sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I didn’t know what to say. I had left her so carelessly and caused so much pain all the while convincing myself it was the best thing. But there was no such thing, every option I had was a terrible one.

  “Bird . . .”

  “There’s nothing to say. It was a nonevent, and I don’t blame you. You would have had no way of knowing that I could be. We were pretty responsible. But it’s so easy to confide in you. Even after all these years. And this was one I had to hold in for a long time.”

  Even though it didn’t happen, the possibility of a pregnancy hit me hard. It triggered a fear I was forced to think about more as I reached my mid-twenties, the idea that I could pass down the gift or the curse, likely both.

  “You’re the only woman in the world I could ever imagine having a child with, but it was for the better. Not just because I was gone, but because it could be like me.”

  I felt her stiffen in my arms. “No . . . Ash you are not a mistake. You are rare.”

  The words I had said to her long ago when she cried, when I decided to stop fearing how I felt about her and let those feelings take hold.

  “And I would have been blessed to have a child like you, but that’s not how it turned out.”

  “It’s like no matter what I would have done back then, it would have been the wrong choice. It’s always the wrong choice.”

  “Why are you so hard on yourself?”

  I never saw it that way. I just saw it as honesty. Most people didn’t have the balls to be honest with themselves.

  “Because I deserve it.”

  “Sarah wasn’t your fault.”

  She went right to the nucleus of the issue, and I wanted to believe it, but even Bird didn’t know the truth.

  “It was.”

  “It was an accident. A truck rear-ended you. It could have happened to anyone.”

  “No . . . it couldn’t have.” I knew I had to finally tell Bird everything if we were to have a second chance. “I told Sarah I wanted to go for a drive when our parents were out of town and Miller was in law school. I took my dad’s car when I wasn’t supposed to. I was responsible for her. But I felt like I was on top of the world, and I was speeding, swerving, acting wild. She was having fun, she was only 15 and she just wanted to be with her big brother. I thought I saw something come out onto the road, a fox or whatever, and I slammed the brakes—”

  A geyser of regret poured out of me. I had never said the words to anyone. I never admitted to anyone I was manic when it happened. I had lived with the secret for so long. The loss overwhelmed me: Sarah, Bird, my parents.

  “Bird, it happened because of my disease. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was diagnosed, it made sense. It wouldn’t have happened if Miller was driving. It wouldn’t have happened if my parents were. I was the cause. I killed her.”

  “Ash, you have an illness. And you were just a kid. You didn’t know. There was no way you could have known. You know that what happens during a manic phase is not you. You know this.”

  She was right, but for so long I had internalized the blame and I couldn’t let it go.

  “I can’t even look my parents in the eye. They were destroyed. My entire family was destroyed because I’m fucked in the head. I still see her . . . in my dreams, the blood, the way she hung upside down as the water rushed in.”

  She cradled my head against her chest. “Ash, you need help. Not just medicine. You need to see someone about this. You’ll never get a grip on everything u
nless you work on this. And I’m just a dancer. I can’t fix this.”

  “I’m fine. I’ve got a grip,” I told her defensively.

  “I saw the bottles in the bin,” she said softly. “You might have a hold on the swings, but you still have things to work out. You deserve to be happy.”

  I hesitated.

  “I saw a movie once, and in it, a character said, ‘sometimes good people go to hell because they can’t forgive themselves.’”

  “I would agree, except I know I’m not in hell yet,” I replied.


  “Because I wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone who dances in whirls of color, whose laughter looks like tiny fleeting galaxies.”

  Bird looked down with a pained look on her face. She didn’t want to feel those words, she didn’t trust them.

  “After my sister died, I wanted to disappear. And I did. But you saw me . . . you saw me.”

  “You have to promise me, Ash. You need to pick up the phone and see a therapist. Commit to it. You need to want to work on this. Promise me,” Bird said firmly, cupping my face in her hands and looking me squarely in the eyes.

  I would do it. Anything to win her back.


  We sat in contemplation for a while and then Bird finally spoke. “I saw you have a record player.”

  “You saw correctly. And I have nearly duplicated your collection.”


  I laughed.

  “What do you say we make some art together? Let’s work some shit out.”

  So we went downstairs and we danced and we painted until our eyes wouldn’t stay open any longer, and then we fell asleep.


  The next morning I woke up and reached over for Bird. Unlike so many other mornings, I looked forward to feeling a warm body beside me, but the sheets were cool. I hoped she would be making us coffee or breakfast, that we could relive those picture-perfect mornings in her tiny studio on her days off.

  With each step I took through the loft, the realization became clearer. I had lost her again.

  Then I spotted something on the kitchen counter, it was a brass pin in the shape of a paintbrush. When I left her, I slid this in an envelope with a note and asked Miller to give it to her.


  Sarah gave this to me and I think she would have loved for you to have it. Keep it safe for me.

  - Ash

  Now she had a note for me.


  I can’t let myself get hurt again.

  You left me to give me room to grow. Now I’m doing the same for you.

  Keep your promise.

  - Bird

  I eased onto one of the stools behind me as I fiddled the brass pin between my thumb and forefinger. It was my turn to feel what it was like to be left for my own good.


  SEVERAL WEEKS HAD passed since Bird came and went. Fly Bird, Fly is what she did. She flew away from the person who in her eyes, up and left on a hunch years ago. She still didn’t know I knew that she had turned down the tour to stay in LA with me. I didn’t rat Jordan out. I didn’t think blaming her best friend would help anyone and I didn’t want to further devastate her.

  I was keeping my promise. I called a therapist. It was time to talk about the things that had been plaguing me in a real way. Just telling Bird alone felt therapeutic. But it was also time to seriously talk to someone about the nightmares and the claustrophobia. The self-prescribed booze treatment was putting me on the road to a life of tortured loneliness.

  In the past, when I was hospitalized I didn’t engage the therapists. They needed to know I was sane and not a danger to myself and others. So that’s why they got, but that was all they got from me at the hospital.

  I didn’t have Bird’s phone number, but I went to her website and Facebook page and left her messages. I didn’t expect a reply. I wouldn’t give up, but I needed to first give a shit about myself to stand any chance at getting her back.

  The first few sessions were awkward and clunky for me, but eventually I told my therapist everything, and was diagnosed with PTSD. Me, of all people. Growing up in a military family, I had always associated PTSD with war, but the crash, nearly drowning next to my dead sister while trapped in a car, the survivor’s guilt, then, weeks later being thrown in a room in straight jacket with no understanding of why—my body and subconscious didn’t understand the circumstances, it only knew terror.

  He said that’s why I had such difficulty managing the bipolar disorder. I had massive triggers I wasn’t addressing, and some symptoms weren’t my bipolar disorder, but the PTSD. My drinking was about dulling the psychological pain, and medications couldn’t deal with the trauma.

  I was in my studio tackling my latest piece when my cell phone rang. I had been playing some Chopin, lost in the visuals of silver, icy blue, and pale pink as their geometric shapes blossomed like flowers.

  Usually, I didn’t even bring my cell into the studio, but I had left Bird my phone number in those messages, and kept it around on the off chance she would call. It was Miller. I ignored it. Miller called again. And again.

  “Working,” I finally answered, annoyed.

  “Dad’s sick,” he said.

  My taste buds went bitter, my fingertips numb. The colors disintegrated and fell out of sight as the music drifted into the background.

  “What do you mean?”

  “He had a heart attack. Massive. You need to get over here.”

  I didn’t respond. I hadn’t seen my dad in years. The months I spent at my parent’s house after Sarah died were the most miserable. My childhood home, which was once full of movement and life, was full of death and misery. My mother would randomly break into tears. Sometimes I could hear her wailing in Sarah’s room in the middle of the night. My father, who was usually dry as a desert, lived in a steady state of mild drunkenness. He would disappear into his shed for hours because he felt the suffocating grief of the house as well. Miller, who was away at school, didn’t have to live in purgatory. Miller didn’t have to live with Sarah’s ghost. Miller didn’t see what things were like for my parents. Miller didn’t have to deal with the fact that he was the cause of it all.

  I was convinced that seeing me was part of the problem. Secretly, they blamed me. Then I got sick. I should have been the one to die. Instead they were stuck living with the bipolar killer of their daughter and a failed artist, while the smiling girl with dreams of becoming a veterinarian one day was dead.

  The nightmares got worse. My room began to close in on me nightly. I started sneaking out in the middle of the night just so I could breathe.

  Then one day, I left, to allow them to move on. I couldn’t bring myself to face them again. Not after the failures I had incurred. Their lives were better without their prodigal son.

  “Dammit, Ash. Just get over here!” Miller shouted.

  “Fine.” I wasn’t sure what I would do when I got there, but at the very least, I could be there for my brother.


  Seeing Ash was a mistake. Everything was fine before I saw him and now everything wasn’t. I hurt all over again. That one night was full of all the enchantment I had remembered. Over the years, I had convinced myself that we weren’t that special, that it was just the dreamy feeling of falling in love for the first time. But I was older, I had experienced so much more, and yet, the connection I felt to Ash hadn’t changed all that much.

  It was over three weeks since we had reunited, and I was still thinking about Ash. Before heading back to LA, I told Javier I needed some space. It wasn’t fair to him that I wasn’t fully invested in us. I thought I was, but I was just satisfied. He fit the list of the perfect guy. Ash was a disaster, there were so many “nos” with him, and yet, he was the one who I yearned for.

  I was settling back into my place in LA. I took some time off, and I was considering a Vegas run at a new Danse Nocturne show. The break couldn’t have come at a worse time. I needed
distractions, and the only thing I could do was unpack.

  It had only been six months since Jordan had moved with Trevor to San Francisco. Trevor had gotten an executive producer spot in his hometown, and they wanted to raise their daughter there. Jordan wouldn’t be storming into my place anymore. He was busy with his important role at Danse Nocturne and raising a child. We tried to catch up on the phone a couple of times a week, but their little girl, Anna, named after her godmother, was taking most of his time. With this break in my schedule, he was coming to spend a few days with me while Trevor bit the bullet and stayed back with Anna. It would be just Jordan and Bird like old times. I wondered how I would tell Jordan about Ash. He saw the disaster I was after Ash left, he warned me (and was right) about him. How could I explain that I fell right back into his arms?

  I dragged my empty luggage into a storage unit and that’s when I was faced with another remnant of Ash. There were several boxes labeled with his name filled with the canvas paper squares he had painted on the roof. His “secret project.” For years I pretended they didn’t exist, but I couldn’t get rid of them.

  I did my best to preserve them, sorting and boxing each collection separately.

  I pulled out the largest box, dragged it up to my condo, and laid the colorful squares along my living room floor. They were all abstract, and maybe that was the point, but I always felt like there was some secret in them, the secret he never got around to telling me. After staring at them for a while, I noticed that two of the pieces laying side by side flowed into each other, like two pieces of a puzzle.

  I scanned all the pieces and found another set that matched. Suddenly I was on my hands and knees, putting together these pieces, frantically trying to solve the mystery. I lost track of time and sweat poured from my brow as I arranged and rearranged the squares. But when I was done, it still looked like one big blur. I stared at it for maybe an hour, trying too hard to get into Ash’s mind to understand the significance of this puzzle. I cursed under my breath and trudged upstairs in defeat. Jordan would be here soon and I needed a shower. As I reached the loft, I took one last look to sneer at another disappointment from Ash, and that’s when I saw it.

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