She was the song you hear and, at first blush, don't like.
Well, you don't know how you feel about it so you keep listening in an attempt to discover how exactly you feel and then you reach the end of the song and you realize, you don't like it; you love it.
That was Grace.
She was my coworker and she was my friend.
We carpooled together, I drove and she slept most of the way.
"Don't get much sleep at night, do you?" I asked her, catching those drooping lids mid-descent.
She looked out the window streaked with rain; it spoke in percussive touches filling the car with quiet overcast conversation.
I felt the warmth of her smile in the corner of my eye. The blur of her hand reached at the window to feel the cold of the droplets.
"When I was a girl, I used to race these. I thought it was funny the fat ones always won," she giggled and I imagined her as a little girl in the passenger seat then, legs too short to reach so kicking, and hair messed in the back from looking back and forth between the driver, her mother maybe, and the world rushing past. I imagined her wonder and the light in her eyes and the dreams ever blooming in her mind of being more than a bird caged in a cubicle.
"It's an inverse reality they live in."
I raised my eyebrows in feigned amusement. Her philosophical musings bothered me and I didn't quite know why. There was something gloomy about how she spun ordinary things, never dull but rarely lighting.
"So I suppose the fat droplet winner is actually the loser then?" I glanced at her smiling with expectation, for her to enjoy my joining in, but she was fast asleep.
I fell asleep wondering if Bethany would ever come back. Her blue eyes smiled at me from a photo we asked a stranger to snap of us in the park. The weight of self-consciousness about a chipped tooth kept her lips closed but the shine of her smile could be seen in her summer gaze.
She left with the sweep of fall chills saying, "We're not getting anywhere." I guess we were never on the same page because I wanted to stay with her forever in the good moments but she was always searching for the next one before the close of the first. The first at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant; she was waiting tables and I was just waiting. Maybe it was for her but at the time I thought it was for a girl I had hit it off with at a bar. Beth slid into the booth just when I had finished reading every word on the menu at least ten times. She said in a sorry tone as I looked up frowning, "You won't find her in there."
That was the first of many.
I sighed remembering how her hair curtained around my face when she was so close my breath could caress her cheeks and it did and so too my lips--
Someone knocked on the door.
I groaned and rolled over, willing who ever it was to leave. I could feel Bethany slipping away from me.
A harder knock sent my pillow flying across the room.
"My god, who wakes people up at," I glared at my red-eyed clock, " three in the morning? Are you fucking kidding me?"
I didn't bother with the peephole and swung the door open.
"Morning," she said in a half-whisper.
Before I could respond she was pushing passed me into the foyer. I closed the door behind me as she shuffled to the kitchen and started rummaging through the cabinets.
"Grace, what...what's going on? what are you doing here?" I leaned across the counter, "wait, how did you even get here?"
She placed a pot of water on the stove to boil and began to hum as she opened a box of tea she pulled out of the deep pockets of her sweater.
The coffee cups tinged as spoons were tossed inside their emptiness and her voice lighted just above the racket of her tea-making, "I walked."
I tilted my head and lowered myself in an attempt to make eye contact with her, "You...walked...here? Grace! That's at least a nine mile walk, Jesus! Why didn't you just call me?"
She turned at the sound of the water boiling and whisked it off the heat. The steaming water splashed into the cup causing the tea bags to rise and fall and seep.
Grace shrugged, "I didn't have a phone."
She grabbed me by the hand and led me to the couch, sat me down and handed me the steaming cup of camomile. Settling beside me with her cup, she folded her legs under her and raised the tea to her mouth. She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes and letting the honey and sugar and flower herb scents flow into her. She parted her lips to exhale the stale air of whatever filled her earlier, whatever brought her floating into my living room.
I witnessed her communion from the black television reflection; rubbing my finger tips up and down the sides of the hot mug, I breathed hesitantly.
After taking a long slow sip, she broke the silence to ask if I liked the drink.
The golden yellow liquid caught the light of the morning as I tilted it toward me staring into its depths, "yes, thanks."
She nodded in my peripheral and set her cup on the coffee table; it was still full.
"Is this your girlfriend?"
She was caressing a photo of Bethany and I on the very couch Grace and I sat now apart. Beth's head was tucked in my shoulder, face pressed against my chest smiling with shy-closed eyes. It was one of the few photos with her teeth exposed. My head rested on hers and my mouth was wide open in laughter.
"She has a beautiful smile and... I don't think I've ever heard you laugh."
"Grace, what are you doing here?"
I could hear the soft click as she set the framed photo down on the table. I hadn't looked at her all this time but I knew which photo it was having stared at it so many times on quiet Saturday nights. My head was bowed, eyes on the tea growing cold in my hand and ears listening for a response.
Moments later I heard a rustle of fabric against the couch. I sighed, waiting.
She was curled up next to the couch arm, taking up only one cushion of the three. Her eyes were closed and her mouth slightly ajar.
Sighing, I pulled the blanket hanging on the back of the couch over her. An impulse of muscle memory sent me leaning forward to plant a kiss on her temple. As I pulled away, I saw a dark purple mark on her throat.
My finger tips trailed along the dark thumb print, "Oh, Grace," I whispered. As my hand drifted away from her neck, she grasped at my trembling fingers. Her eyes shimmered as she stared ahead, "I thought he was broken like me. I thought we could...fix each other. His edges are too sharp and every time...every time I touch, he cuts. I can't sleep because I lay next to broken glass and if I'm not careful, if I let my eyes close for a second in his presence, blood will be drawn." Her fingers tightened around mine and her eyes shifted their intensity upon my face shadowed by the full force of the sun singing good morning in the center of the window.
"We, you and I," her voice shook and smiled, as her face softened at the thought on her lips, "we are broken in a different way, hmm? We are bent."
That evening, Grace slept in my bed.
As I turned in my sleep, the couch creaked and I remembered...
"Have you ever done it on a couch?"
I grunted a gust of excited breath into Bethany's unabashed smile, "No."
We nearly banged heads as my hand slipped through the space between the cushion and the couch back.
"Fuck." She laughed into my ear and stroked the back of my head, my forehead resting on her shaking shoulder.
Not the most graceful sex we had ever had but she was so present then. It was before the vacancy had set in and I managed to bottle the moment in a single shot. It was blurry but so was everything in the relationship. Stability between two people is a luxury and I took it for granted in the early days of us.
"Wake up," she shook me with gentle hands.
"I am awake," I chuckled into her shoulder.
"Hey, wake up."
My eyes slowly opened to an empty pillow beneath where my head only moments ago rested in her memory.
"Sorry to wake you," said a coarse voice to my right. I squinted into Grace's face.
"It's fine. What's wrong?"
"You're missing the sunrise, love."
I leaned on the banister hoping it would serve to keep my eyelids and my sleep-deprived body up. She swayed to a song in her head with her hands deep in the same old sweater that held the box of tea. There was a glow of sentimentality in each string stretched around her smallness. Her dull brown hair draped around her, long and unkempt, and she balanced on a foot - one pressing the top of the other. I was about to ask her about the sweater, and about the person who made it for her, and about her life story, and about the bastard nine miles from here with his purple prints stamped into her hidden neck but then the sun poked its bright orange head up on the horizon. He was a welcome interruption to my silent interrogation. He always managed to still my worries and for a moment I wished I had kept coming outside each morning to see him float into the light blue sky, to awkwardly mingle with the clouds.
"Isn't he beautiful?"
The whisper sailed from her lips soft as the caress of a mother's hand on her newborn's cheek.
"I wish I woke up in such a quiet, slow way.I think I used to before..." she touched her neck.
"So do I." I wrapped my arm around her fuzzy sweater shoulders and she leaned into me.
"Before she died?"
"Can I stay here?" She spoke to me toward the sun whose brightness glided into complete circle view.
"Yeah, I could use the company and the alarm."
And for the first time I saw her smile and then laugh and I laughed too.