Love So Hard
by Joy Wilson
I had to count on my hands before I believed you’ve been dead seven years. I stared at my fingers as if they were lying. Seven years and I’m having the nightmares again. Not nightmares, exactly, but I don’t know what else to call the dreams that leave my pillow so soaked with tears and sweat I have to hang it out on the line.
Last night we were in a field of dying prairie grass, with your parents and sisters. A leafless oak hung overhead. We sat in a circle on beige suede couches and you were convincing me you hadn’t died. My funeral was a scam you said so I could get an internship. Didn’t you notice the priest? He wasn’t a priest. I was an atheist, remember?
Yeah, I told you he didn’t look like a priest. Besides, I thought it was a sham. I didn’t get to see you. I shuffled my feet. I didn’t believe in heaven until you died.
The last time we talked you said something about that internship. You were dating someone-- Jenny, a dancer - and you were thinking of getting married. Not because you loved her, you said, but because you needed to be a legal citizen to get that job with Financial Corp. You’d wished your parents had waited until they emigrated from Argentina to have you, but then, you wouldn’t have had your accent.
It was your accent that attracted me to you. We were in the bleachers and you’d just broken up with that girl you’d been dating for so long. Sara was her name, I think. She was in Drama Club. You took me to a play she was in. You tried so hard to be her friend.
I said, "Hey Gonzalo, I heard you’re single now. Why not date my friend Tracy?" Remember her? She had a crush on you. Her last name was Piles and everyone gave her shit about it. Those were the first words I ever said to you and all you did was smile.
Later, after we’d won our powder puff game, we went for pizza. You were still dressed in your cheerleader costume, the one you wore on a bet with your druggie friend, Marshall. Your blonde wig hung down to your knees and you were wearing your combat boots. You dared me to kiss off your lipstick. You had to remind me of that in a nightmare. Until then I thought our first kiss was at that tiny park with the one swing and the dozens of sandboxes. That was the place you told me what you wanted to say in front of Tracy in the quad, that you wanted me instead of her.
We walked the train tracks a lot. Your parents flipped about finding some pot in your room and told you I was the only friend you were allowed to hang out with. They’d seen me at one of your volleyball games and assumed I was straight-laced because I wrote for the paper and had gotten an early acceptance to college. You got your truck that night too-we drove your shitty Mazda from the game to your house and your parents had it in the driveway.
Your mom made empanadas, and we watched "The Simpsons," and your dad kept calling Homer Homero.
That night we made out for an hour before you told me you had a box of condoms stashed in your closet.
"Oh," I said, "I’ve got to go home."
I thought of myself as a good girl, one of the ones very curious but never that interested in sex. Also, I was afraid of getting pregnant. Funny right? Now that I know I can’t ever have kids I might as well have been the slut of Quartz Hill High. And, if by some miracle I did get pregnant with your baby, at least I’d still have some of you to hang onto besides these nightmares.
The first time I had one I was home for your funeral. It woke up my mom in the next room. He was walking with Nate down a dirt road I told her. And he was shaking his hand. I was in a little brown house with blue shutters and Gonzo came to the door and said He’s a good guy. You made a good choice.
"He’s one of your guardian angels," she said.
"But why?" I asked her.
You remember Nate, right? He was the guy I finally gave it up to. That must have been right after you told me about Jenny. You and I were home for fall break that first year of college and you had a picture of her in your wallet. I didn’t have one of Nate.
I was wearing my pink gingham shirt and those old black boots you helped me pick out. I felt so ugly next to her tiny photograph-her long blonde hair-and me with my curls pulled back in a ponytail. She’s a dancer you said. She’s already been on Broadway. I’d never even been to New York.
You had on that red and blue checked shirt with the funny button straps on the sleeves. You wore that all the time. When you left, I hugged you so long and hard you had to pull me away.
That next weekend I showed Nate a scrapbook I’d put together in high school. On one page you’d signed your name-Gonzalo Busso-and written AKA Flame Boy.
"What does that mean?" Nate asked.
Oh, it was a joke back in high school. One day Gonzo and I were making out in his parents’ living room and he had a lighter in his pocket, a Zippo. He was pressed against me-
"Okay," Nate said. "I don’t need to know anymore."
But while I turned the pages of the scrapbook, I remembered that afternoon, lying on your parents’ floor. We’d just spent Saturday painting our senior mural on the quad at school. I had a sunburn on the backs of my legs and you’d rubbed Noxzema on them. While we were making out, your lighter pressed harder and harder into my pelvis and left a bruise. After that I called you Flame Boy, you called me Bruise Girl.
The quad burned down last year, how’s that for irony?
The weekend after Nate and I looked at the scrapbook, my mom called me at school. "Honey, are you sitting down?"
"What’s going on, Mom?" I knew it was major because her voice was almost a whisper.
"Honey, Gonzo died."
"Gonzo’s dead, baby. The funeral’s this Thursday. I thought you might come home for it. I’ve got the newspaper article here, and I think you should call his mother."
The article said you’d been hiking and then went for a couple of beers. When you got back to your dorm room on the eighteenth floor you decided to put on your Rollerblades. Then you needed a cigarette so you went out on the balcony. Then next thing anyone heard, you were screaming on your fall down to the quad. Your sister lived on the seventh floor and heard your scream. But you didn’t die until they got you into the ambulance.
I had to borrow a pair of slacks from my roommate for your funeral. I wore the black boots we bought because I didn’t have any other black shoes. Nate had to take me home and went to the funeral with me- I was annoyed he wanted to be there. Marshall stared at him when we got out of the car. But before he could say anything to me, a girl in a long dress touched my arm.
"You’re Elaine, right?"
"I’m Jenny. Gonzo talks about you…I mean, he talked about you all the time."
She was wearing sunglasses and had her hair pulled in a bun. I couldn’t tell if she was crying, but she was holding a handkerchief. "He has your prom picture on his wall in the dorm. And in that photo album with that other guy’s pictures." She pointed to Marshall. "He took one of them off the first page and put a picture of you two there."
I didn’t know what to say so I shuffled my feet and looked around.
"He really loved you a lot." she finally said.
"I don’t know why," I told her.
Your dad came over then and hugged me. It was something I hadn’t expected, and it made me cry. He said You such a good girl. We so happy you here with us today.
I stood at the edge of the crowd, staring at your closed casket, wishing I could see you one more time. I didn’t understand anything the priest said-the service being in Spanish-but I’d hoped he was saying Don’t worry. When all the gringos leave, we’re going to open the coffin and Gonzalo will come out.
I’m a gringa so I never saw you get out of the coffin, but I sometimes think I see you driving around town.
The clearest memory I have of you is when we went back to that little park with all the sandboxes. We were laying in the grass, watching the sky. I don’t remember what we talked about; I don’t remember the sound of your voice. What I remember is the touch of your fingers. I thought about the cars that might drive by, the children that might come to play, and forced myself to keep you out of my pants. We drove to the hills for a hike as the sun set. It was there you told me you were going to leave early for college. ASU had a summer program for economics majors and you wanted to get a head start. We were gonna break up anyway you said. We might as well do it now. I leave next week.
I was mad and cried the whole way home, wiping my face with the same pink gingham shirt I wore two years later when you told me about Jenny. After your funeral, I took that shirt and my boots and put them in a paper sack in my closet. I never washed your smell - Old Spice and cilantro - out of the shirt, never wiped the cemetery dust off the boots.
It wasn’t until I finished college, when I was packing to move to another state for graduate school, that I found the bag in a box labeled HIGH SCHOOL. By then I’d been with a handful of guys and loved them so hard they’d left me. I’d had so many nightmares I was fed up with ever knowing you. But when I opened the bag I smelled you for the first time in so long and all I could remember was that afternoon in the park. I took that shirt, buttoned it around a pillow and slept with it for a year. In that time I didn’t have a single nightmare.
So here I am, seven years later and you came to me last night. It’s been a long year, you know? I’m finally in love with someone. He reminds me of you in little ways. He has a pet name for me. His deodorant smells the way you used to smell. He doesn’t mind that I wear a pair of old, smelly boots. He’s been with me during the hormone shots and the moodiness and the pain of this disease which makes me infertile and for which there is no cure. When I finally got rid of that pink gingham shirt, he went with me to the Goodwill. And this morning when I woke crying, I miss you, I miss you I miss you. He held me and wiped the tears out of my ears. He stroked my back, and I thought I could have saved you. If I would’ve given you as much love as I give him, maybe I could’ve kept you safe-off the balcony, out of that bar. In my mind I can see a chain of events leading all the way to the day in the park, even as far back as the night after the volleyball game or the night of our first kiss-or any night we went out. I thought if I could’ve kept you near me, I could’ve loved you so hard you wouldn’t have been able to fall.
Last night you told me you were getting married. That’s why you came to visit. You’d gotten older-you had a double chin and were wearing a baseball cap. Not once did you ever wear one in life. I laughed about it and you pulled it farther down on your head and stuffed your hands into your pockets. "Are you married yet?" you asked.
"No," I said. " have a disease. I can’t have kids because of it. Who wants to marry someone who can’t have kids?"
"He will," you said and made like you were going to hug me, but your family was leaving, dusting the dried grass off the couches. They spoke Spanish and I couldn’t understand. Your sister was pushing a stroller over the rocky soil.
I looked down at my shoes and said, "I’m still wearing the boots you helped me pick out."
"Yeah," you said. "Don’t ever take them off."
Joy Wilson is a California native currently residing in Oxford, Mississippi where she writes and teaches. Her fiction has appeared in Folio. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories. Contact her.