Title: The Canon
Prompt: A Couple of Shadows
Word Count: 1,701
I’ve spent half my life with tears behind my eyes.
There are times when I simply feel the tears, harmless as they are, resting patiently and never coming to where I know they’d like to be. I call these the wasted potentials. There are other times when they prick me with an incessant nagging feeling, which I know will only be overcome if I smother them with thoughts of something entirely different. I call these the constant annoyances. And still, there are the times when the tears I hide behind my lids are so forceful and persistent that it takes every ounce of strength I have to dam them, and damn them, and all I can do is hope they retreat to the depths of my heart from whence they’ve come. These have earned the name Emersons, after the person whose memory has most often been the cause of them.
I was in the wedding party of the only person I’ve ever truly loved.
* * *
I was a gangly twenty-three-year-old the summer Sophie Emerson married Alexander McNamara. Fresh out of college with a BA in English under my arm, I went on a job hunt the day they left on their honeymoon, the grand plan being that I’d focus my energy on something that wasn’t Sophie. A few weeks later I landed a job teaching literature to high school students who didn’t know the difference between the Romantics and the Victorians, who couldn’t care less about the Brontë sisters’ pseudonyms, who hated the thought of Thoreau’s transcendentalism. Their disinterest in literature disinterested me. My only goal was to keep busy. But, the more I taught the great literature, studied and explained to these troubled youths the strength and rarity of the ever-fixed mark of love, the more I knew I’d made a mistake in not stopping Sophie on the wedding day. I am fairly sure that my life’s greatest mistake was not declaring as an impediment to their marriage the fact that I loved her more than he did. I screamed it in my head, but my words were lost, as if borne out from one star to another over the vacuum of space and time.
Twenty years have passed since that summer. Twenty long years full of pining and regret, wishful thinking and wistful reminiscences. And yet, here I sit, a red pen in my hand and a mediocre essay on Proust in my lap. The years have grown slow around me, and still I have not changed. A tear, a single idle tear falls on the page I hold, bleeding the ink into itself. The words are muddled now, but I decide they weren’t clear, anyway.
* * *
I did my best to get over Sophie, knowing that if I dwelled on her too long, I’d waste away, only with less grace and into more obscurity than Narcissus of mythological lore. After Sophie and Alexander came back from their honeymoon and moved to Arizona, I started dating. But no one I found had that certain Sophieness that I yearned for. With no one else did I have a history.
Sophie and I met in ninth grade at the Sadie Hawkins dance. The streamer-clad gym lacked pubescent romance, so when Sophie bumped into me and I spilled bright red fruit punch all over my yellow dress, forming a stain whose shape vaguely resembled William Shakespeare’s famous head, it was the most exciting thing that had happened all evening. We left our dull dates and spent the night together, mocking the poorly dressed chaperones. That was the start of it. She saw me through my parents’ perfunctory divorce the next year, and I let her cry on me the nights she thought too much about the student teacher she swore she loved, knowing she could never have him. The best I could do was hold her, and say that maybe it was better that way.
The night we both got our acceptance letters to Rice University, I was sure that somehow, under the giant sky of Texas, Sophie would realize my love for her and we would fall into a clichéd love story that would end with a happily ever after. Instead, she met Alexander during sophomore year, and four years later she married him.
And six more years after that, I decided to settle for someone I didn’t love. Deep down I knew I was disappointing so many I looked up to, that Elizabeth Bennet would throw harsh words in my face, knew she the situation, but I uttered the lackadaisical I do anyway. It seemed to me that if I couldn’t marry the one person in the world I wanted to, I may as well marry anyone and check the whole thing off on my Life Goals list. Alfred King, less regal than the name implied, at least always put the orange juice back in the same place in my fridge. I decided that was enough to merit a few of trays of bacon-wrapped scallops and a couple of golden rings. We forewent a bridal party at the ceremony—I couldn’t bear to hear Pachelbel remind me of the haunting moment in which I preceded Sophie down the aisle and agreed to give her up forever.
Alfred and I have been married for fourteen years. There was one day, about three years into our marriage, when I thought maybe I’d grown to love Alfred; a feeling burned in my heart that I was sure was the fiery passion of love so often described in the most romantic pieces of literature—it was, in fact, mild indigestion.
* * *
I could not escape thoughts of Sophie after her move to Arizona, though our phone calls became less and less frequent, and eventually non-existent. I did not invite Sophie to my wedding, knowing if she came I would never marry. Yet though I have not spoken with her for fifteen years, her idea is still with me; for she, her very memory, is not a midsummer night’s dream, a heated passion of the swollen night forgotten by the waking hours. She is instead the realm of dreams itself.
I kissed her, once, when she fell asleep in my bed one rainy summer night as we watched some ridiculous movie she bought at a garage sale. She was lying there, breathing steadily, and her blue mascara pressed down against her lower eyelids in a way that reminded me of the time my cat knocked over a framed photograph of my parents, and the glass broke into a million little pieces, and all I could think of was destiny. Her lips were cool and they tasted exactly like summer would taste, if seasons had flavors. They tasted like chlorine and cherry cola. Her breath hitched when my wet tongue met her lower lip, and I was never sure what to make of that.
After my brief six seconds of quenched curiosity, I rolled all the way over to the other side of my bed and finished the movie. I never told her about the kiss.
Tonight is the night of our twenty-fifth high school reunion, and I have returned to the gym where we met, dressed now in balloons, not streamers. I came for Sophie. I have no romantic notions of sweeping her off her feet, partly because I wouldn’t know how, and partly because I left Alfred at home with the promise we would play a game of Scrabble upon my return. I may not love Alfred, but I never break my word.
My hands sweat as I anticipate our meeting.
And it is now, under the old fluorescent lights, amid the din of reconnection, that I see Sophie, the woman I have loved since high school, for the first time in twenty years. I recognize her across the crowd, but as I cross the gym and see more clearly her aspect, I feel a batch of Emersons welling up. It is because I love her that I want to cry, because I love her and yet what I see is a shadow of the former Sophie. Love’s not Time’s fool, but Time has played a game on Sophie. Her hair, once long and sleek black, is short and feathered, patched with grey; her eyes, formerly an intense dark brown, have faded, a lighter brown now, and the skin around them is loose and replete with wrinkles; but it is her lips that bid me turn around and walk away. Her lips – the delicate, cool lips which I once kissed – are now smothered in a fuchsia lipstick. It’s too much for me.
Before Sophie sees me, I dash into the bathroom. As I stand in front of the mirror, all I can do is think how backwards Oscar Wilde would see this situation, since it is the real Sophie who has aged, not the portrait of her I had remembered in my mind’s eye. Dorian Gray didn’t know how lucky he was, I think as the first Emerson rolls down my cheek.
Looking in the mirror at the streak of black mascara that has run down my face, guided by the saline tear, I realize that I, too, am a shadow of my former self. I look more worn than I had ever noticed before, more vulnerable, more old. Before I have time to ponder this, to depress myself with thoughts of aging, the idea comes to me that Sophie and I share the same fate. We are just a couple of shadows. A couple. We are.
Twenty years ago, I was Sophie Emerson’s maid of honor. I loved her as I walked down the aisle in front of her in a flowing crimson dress. I loved her as she handed me her bouquet of roses when she took Alexander’s hand. I loved her most right before she formed the words I do, hoping my love would traverse the space between us, enter her heart, and render her speechless.
But, alas, it is as Miroslav Holub wrote: you only love when you love in vain.
I splash water on my face and wonder if my students pay attention to the poems I make them read.