"Little kids," he'd said on some other occasion, "little kids use it all the time. Means love, right? Fat-assed Cupid with his little bow and arrows with hearts on the ends. Fuckin' Disney." He'd shaken his head. "That's kids, not knowing jack." He moved closer to her, cradling the plastic cup like a relic, his eyes never leaving hers; for a moment she was afraid to breathe. "That's not it. It's pain. The arrow through your heartyou think that's going to feel good? Love is pain. Life is pain, all of it, until you've drunk so much of it that you dont feel it anymore, and that's when we should die. It's bitter as hemlock, love." He topped off her screwdriver and smiled like a devil or a martyr. "Drink up."
"Drink it, Chris," she murmured her in her apartment, two years and infinity from that night. "You poured the cup, not I." Speaking of a cup, this day had been absolute hell. Karen went to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle, still half full. Rum and Coke sounded like a good choice, though her eyes kept straying to the unopened letter. It would sit, with all the others after the first few, after she couldn't stand to read any more.
She couldn't even hate him for being so stupid. So fucking careless, that this should happen. Maybe she'd expected it. Maybe she had always known.
Might have known, at least, when after losing touch for a while after she graduated they met last year in a Greenwich bar and Karen bought them imported beer they never would have drunk eighteen months before. Same Chris, hair pure white now, cut short and stiff, and he still wore second-hand black the way he had long before it was in style. No, he told her, he was taking a break from school, trying to get a handle on life. Taking it easy for a while.
She had remarked that he looked a little pale, and gone off into giggling memories of how they used to plan a nocturnal life, wanted skin so fine and translucent you could see the veins moving underneath, and got most of the way there, in fact. She had noticed then, the way his knuckles whitened around the can until the aluminum crumpled slightly. A moment later, though, he had looked her up and down from pumps to perm and asked lightlywas it only her imagination, that faintly bitter tone"So when did you sell out?" Like it was a joke, but he had never used that voice before, not to her.
It made her defensive, and she was never that way with him, after all he knew everything. She spewed some bullshit about protective camouflage and saving money for grad school and you know I'm not the nine-to-five type, Chris! And inside she thought, I didn't sell out I grew up, will you? And thinking then, more sadly, that everything was different now, and maybe she hadn't realized it at the time but they were not, after all, the same, as she had once thought.
The conversation had died after a while, though a couple of times she thought he was about to say something and then stoppedChris, whose lyricism was a constant in her memory, Chris who said what he thought when he thought it and gathered a flock of worshippers wherever he went. So it couldn't be that important.
A few weeks later the first letter had come, in that spiky illegible hand. And a heart with an arrow on the envelope, the way they used to do, to remind each other that they were different from the rest. A reminder of that long-ago conversation about pain, love and life and longing, and she had been puzzled, because it had been a long time since she thought of that.
I wanted to tell you this when we got together, he wrote, but you seemed so happy and together I couldn't bring myself to do it. You know we used to joke about this kind of thingdead by twenty-five, right? Right. My hands are shaking as I write and it's kind of weird to watch. Hope you can read it, though. I guess it hasn't really sunk in yet.
She'd had to reread the letter three times before she could be sure it was real. He assured her she wasn't in danger, but the next day, calmly, she went and got tested. For the first time in months or years she found herself thinking of God, and promised a rosary every day for the rest of her life if only please... then realized how stupid she was being and got on with work. She applied for a promotion.
The test came back negative. And then another letter. Every two weeks ever since. Always the same.
Karen poured another couple shots' worth into her half-empty glass. She remember how, her senior year, he'd started wearing turtlenecks even when the weather was warm. She'd teased him, asked him was he going to give up music and become an artiste? and he struck a pose for her and started drumming on the top of her head, lightly, and she thought of how much she loved his hands, and then forgot, because finals were coming up, and when they were done and the break was over the new clothes had become a part of him that hid the tracks she told herself were not there.
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Except where otherwise noted, all material on this site is © 1999 Rebecca J. Stevenson