His teeth weren’t crooked, but his smile was. He used to tell her about the orthodontia he suffered through, but she didn’t know him then. He seemed to speak as if, had she known him when he’d had braces, she would have passed him by too, as if they obscured and altered others’ opinions about his worth as a boy, as a man, as a being. She never had braces, though her father once told her that every time she smiled, he felt a pang of guilt at his inability to pay for her teeth to be straightened. She hadn’t known what to think at that moment, because she hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with her teeth. It’s amazing how easily and quickly self-consciousness can begin.
She didn’t understand, then, how much this man was like her father. How quick to see faults, and then pretend unsuccessfully that they made no difference. How self-absorbed and consumed by just enough self-loathing to seem humble and clever, self-degrading instead of unhappily vain.
She knew he was touched by melancholy, but it was familiar to her. The quiet artist in her soul adored the melancholy, reveled in it, and knew no other way to be certain she was truly alive. Neither of them realized how deeply the depression inhabited his flesh, until she fought it herself, and could only pry its slimy coils from their grip around his throat long enough to allow him to take a single breath. She could no more defeat it than fly, and while there was once a time she thought she could do both with only the touch of his hand, she slowly learned that for every blow she dealt it, he curled it ever tighter around himself, healing each wound with his need and fear.
She knew there was horror in his past, and sometimes he danced around the tale of it when he’d had a few too many, but before he ever satisfied her curiosity, he drowned himself in her body instead. He never rid himself of the mystery, perhaps because he knew it would keep her there after she discovered what he was, or what he thought he wasn’t.
She knew he longed to play the white knight to her damsel in distress, but when she was with him, she found herself uncomfortably lacking in distress. She watched his attention wane as she grew whole, and never had she ever wished so hard for misfortune in all other arenas but love.
He made her laugh, she made him feel real, when they were together. They spent days and nights in a world of their own making, and it overflowed with wordplay, double and triple entendres, farcical misspellings and every kind of game they could find. They found solace in each other, from the world and from themselves, while they were together.
All too soon, they were apart. The world they had created grew pale and painful in the harsh light of separation, though they tried to prop it up with everything they could lay hands on. Forests supported by flatware and popsicle sticks, mountains stuffed with crumpled paper and dirty clothes, a castle pasted over a mound of sugar cubes and coffee cups.
She felt like a lady in a tower and a questing hero all at the same time, fighting and longing by turns, her eyes always fixed on the dark light in the eastern sky. She made promises and threats, contrived excuses and distractions, and all the while in the back of her mind she chanted, <I>Wait for me, please wait, just a little longer.</I>
One day, she couldn’t pretend it was a story anymore. She never quite knew why he stopped waiting, whether it was the waiting itself that did the damage, or whether he found another damsel in distress whose tower was much more convenient for him to scale, or how much of it she had simply imagined. She wished for a rowboat to lie in, and let her will to live slip away as it glided down the river and into Camelot, but that was a story, and she was no Lady of Shalott.
So she grew up. She put away those pesky childish things, and along with them, her heart. She didn’t know if it was too much or too little, but it hardly mattered to her. The world moved along whether or not she was happy, and as she looked around herself she saw unhappiness in the eyes of those around her, and she understood. It was for this reason that people burned bridges and climbed mountains, forged empires and penned masterpieces.
To forget. To continue. To live.