Photo by Mike Peel,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The universe whispers. It’s whispered to me since before I was born, of the grief that echoed in my mother’s body from the death of a child born a year before me. It whispered that she yearned for me, and so I was born two months early, yanked into a shattered world. At first I thought it was only my world that was broken, but I came to realize that the whole world is shattered, like glass. Some pieces will cut you and become buried so deeply that you have to dig them out. Other pieces fall quietly, reflecting colors and light. Sometimes, when you look at a piece of shattered glass just the right way, in just the right light, a flame rises up that seems caught in it. I saw that flame in his eyes, in one flickering glance.
When the world is shattered into a trillion fractals, it seems impossible that two pieces which fit together would ever find each other, but I remember what day it was: September 18, 1974, ten days before my fifteenth birthday. I remember because that was the day I put away the last journal of my childhood and started a new one. I wrote, “I saw the most beautiful boy today. I think he’ll kiss me one day.” I wished on a star for him to love me. And he ran away every time he saw me. It was a long time before I believed in stars again.
His name was Jonathan. We were at school together, in Connecticut. A small, private school with few places to hide. I trapped him once or twice. I set my girlfriends scheming. The result was always that I was embarrassed, and he was mortified. But I was entirely transfixed by him. I had an unshakable belief that he would belong to me one day. I confided this to Sally, my dorm roommate.
One Sunday evening, Sally concocted a game. We had all returned from our weekends away laden with care packages of snacks from home. The train had been late, so we missed dinner. As was customary when this happened, we opened our packages and shared them in a pile in the middle of the room. As we rifled through the pile, Sally filled a hat with slips of paper. She instructed us to name which boy we liked. This took awhile because each time a boy was named, we went through the list of his faults as well. “You like Scott? You mean the Scott with no butt?” Or, “You’d kiss Eric? You know what I saw him eating for lunch?!”
By the time it was my turn, I wouldn’t say his name. In fact, I was feeling rather sensitive. It felt like an unkind game. I thought it would be safer just to be quiet, but of course I had confessed too much.
“She loves Jonathan,” Sally announced.
“Which Jonathan?” the cry rang out, all titters and giggles.
“He mooned Erica’s mother when they were coming back to school from a game the other day,” one of the girls announced. “He and the Battista twins. They’re a bunch of hooligans. I don’t know what you see in him! And he’s so short!”
“That’s why his butt reaches the back window so well!” someone else chortled.
I thought, “He’s short?” I’d never noticed. I’d hidden in stairwells, memorizing his laugh. I’d watched him fell teammates playing soccer. I’d fallen off a tree stump gazing at his grin. But I’d never noticed he was short. I was sure he had noticed my shortcomings, though. My uncontrollable hair, my nonexistent bust—oh, and the crutches. That yank into the world had saved my life, but not my ability to walk. But no matter how imperfect I felt I was, I couldn’t reconcile the thought that he could never love me with the whisper in my heart that said he most certainly would.
“Take one!” Sally commanded, pulling me back from my reverie. I looked around at the other girls. Everyone in the circle held a slip of paper except for me. “Come on, Mrs. Katz!”
I took the last slip to a chorus of teasing laughter.
Sally put the hat on her head, Mistress of the Ring. “Whatever that paper says is what he will be to you.”
One girl started laughing immediately. She’d already looked. “He will be your worst nightmare,” she read.
“He will be a good friend,” read another.
“He will be your ex-husband,” read a third.
“I want to know what Mrs. Katz got!” said the girl sitting next to me. She was already bored with the game.
“Yeah, what did Mrs. Katz get?” Everyone looked at me.
Reluctantly, I unfolded the paper in my hand. I felt the blood rise to my face so violently that I was lightheaded. I couldn’t speak.
“What? What?” the girl next to me demanded. She finally took the paper out of my hand and read, “He will be the father of your children.”
“Oooooooooo!” heckled everyone in unison. Someone threw a Jolly Rancher at me. “She gets all the candy!”
“Or all the Katz scratches!”
Everyone broke into uncontrolled laughter while tears burned my eyes. It wasn’t just that they were teasing. It didn’t feel like a game to me. He didn’t feel like a game to me. I felt so trapped in my longing that I could barely breathe. I pulled my crutches to me and got to my feet with as much dignity as I could muster. I left the room, locked myself in a toilet stall, and cried. In the midst of my tears, I pulled a quarter out of my pocket and scraped a heart into the paint. By then, the girls were ready to go to bed and knocked on the door, impatient with me.
When I returned to our room, Sally was not there, but the slip of paper was. It was carefully laid out on my desk, peeking out from under one of my notebooks. She had scrawled “SORRY!” on my note pad.
No one else apologized to me for that night. No one ever asked how I was, or why I was crying over such a silly game. But the next morning, and many mornings thereafter, the heart in the bathroom stall grew. Someone traced a bigger heart over my small one. And someone drew a bigger heart over that. There were probably fourteen of them, rippling out from the one I drew by the time the stall was repainted.
I kept that slip of paper for much longer than I realized. I carried the same backpack even after I left Connecticut and spent my senior year at a school in Atlanta—oddly, the same city where Jonathan, who was a year ahead of me, had ended up at university.
One day, I heard his voice again. I thought I was dreaming, but it was persistent, and it was definitely not the universe whispering. When I turned, I saw him, hanging half out of the passenger’s side window of a car that was stopped at a light. He was shouting my name loudly across three lanes of traffic. Our eyes met, and I felt that flame. It was deep, and it was hot. There wasn’t time to say anything more. The light changed, and he was gone. I sat on a bench outside the sandwich shop where I had just bought my lunch and cried. After a time, my brother appeared beside me.
“Your girlfriends said you were sitting down here crying,” he said. “What was in that sandwich?”
“I just need to go home.” I was 18, but I had not been allowed to learn to drive. My brother, who was two years younger, drove us an hour back and forth to school every day.
“It was Jonny, wasn’t it? Doesn’t he go to school around here? You have to go home because you saw him? Did he even see you? What? Did he finally look at you?” He couldn’t keep himself from laughing.
I nodded. Tears were streaming down my face, and my nose was running. He offered me his shirt tail to wipe my face.
“You’re insane. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I do. Don’t be an asshole and rub it in.”
He got up and indicated the open door to the car, which he’d parked illegally at the curb. “Asshole at your service,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
I stole a campus directory. I tried to call him. I never let the phone ring long enough for anyone to answer. I dragged the phone and the cat into my room and dialed the number fifteen times in three hours. And then I cried. Because I wasn’t brave enough. Because there was no way to get to that place I felt in my heart. It was the end. Stars and slips of paper held no magic after all.
After graduation, I packed my luggage to travel to California. I didn’t plan to return home. I also didn’t plan to take that old backpack, but there were a few things I simply could not leave behind. And there, in a pocket meant for a key, I found the slip of paper, that secret yearning I had hidden there so many years before. I read it once, twice, twenty times, before I could let it go.
I burned it on the patio outside my bedroom. It was a beautiful night. A thousand stars I no longer trusted burned in a sky that was much bigger than I would ever be. The flame released the paper, and the ash flew up, but I could not release the flame inside of me. It became deeply buried, and I grew up around it.
Years later, I heard Jonathan had married and his wife had given birth to twins. I was steely by then. I’d moved on. I’d been in a relationship for many years myself, a relationship I was trying to end by having a passionate affair with a married man. I needed to get away from both men, one of whom loved me and shouldn’t, and the other who had resorted to violence against me. I took money I’d inherited and moved to Oregon without telling either of them. And there I lived, quietly single for twelve years. I tore at the fabric by dating a few times, but it just made me feel more lonely
This time I shouted to the universe before she whispered to me. “So, I just never find love. Is that it? That’s my lot in life?”
If you keep insisting you know what love looks like, you will never see it, came the confusing answer.
And I surrendered everything I thought I knew. I had no idea how powerful this message to the universe was. I fell in love. With a woman. Asha. She became my wife. We began living the life that happens when flame reflects flame. And I forgot about Jonathan for a long time.
Decades of using crutches was wearing on my body. I continued to work, but I started to suffer chronic pain in my arms. I was in a manual wheelchair at first, caring for our infant daughter. It was hard to admit that even the manual chair was too much. I needed a power chair, and we needed a bigger house to accommodate it, along with the second child we planned.
We found a big house, bigger than we ever thought we’d need. It had six bedrooms and an in-law apartment on the lower floor. We fell in love with it and risked everything to buy it. When our son was born, I was 48 years old. I was driving a minivan with two child seats in the back. I was running my own business. I was living the life I’d always dreamed of. I was spinning on an axis of joy. I wanted for nothing. And then the universe started to whisper again.
The social networking algorithms popped Jonathan into my feed as someone I might know. The first time it happened, I said to myself, “Yeah, I know you. I don’t think you want to know me.” I clicked the X that was supposed to make the suggestion go away and not appear again. That worked for awhile, but we had too many friends in common. The algorithm triggered again. And again. One day, I gave in and went to his page. There was that grin, the fire-blue eyes, a little less hair. Okay, a lot less hair, but still my Jonathan. He was in a relationship. For the first time in decades I had to swallow back tears. I turned my computer off and left the office.
There was a torrential rain that day. The windshield wipers couldn’t keep the rain from blurring my vision. And then I realized I was crying. Lyrics to a song on the radio—a song I had never heard before that moment—melted me completely. I was sobbing. It was a deep, body-shaking grief. I had to pull over.
I’m 15 for a moment, caught in between 10 and 20 and I’m just dreaming, Counting the ways to where you are…
A wellspring of grief had opened in my heart. I couldn’t avoid the feeling that Jonathan and I had unfinished business. I decided to write to him. I was prepared to weather his silence, his rejection, his anger. What I wasn’t prepared for was his actual response.
He wrote that the way he’d treated me had always weighed on his conscience. He explained that his older brother had been disabled by a genetic disorder that ran in his family. In high school, he had begun to live his life for his brother. He became the sports star, the achiever, the golden boy his brother could never be. He spoke of love so deep that I felt it in my own heart. When he got to the moment where it fell to him to make the decision to discontinue his brother’s life support following a surgery, I was broken so wide open that all I could do was sob. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. “It was too much for me that you had a disability, too. I couldn’t handle it. I was a coward. Thank you for giving me the chance to say I’m sorry.”
“He wants to come for a visit,” I told Asha over drinks one night.
“Ready to stop running, is he?” Of course she knew the story. She’d watched me shift as the truth came out.
“He’s searching,” I said. “He’s lost a job. He’s losing his home. He thinks that’s all he is. I think he needs us.”
“Right,” she smiled. “It’s all about him.” She saw something I didn’t say. It was impossible to hide the “fifteen-for-a-moment” side of me who might finally have him in the same room with me voluntarily. “Are you sure you won’t need help climbing down the trellis outside the bedroom window in the middle of the night?”
There’s nothing quite like being married to your best friend. “No, Honey. On this, I pinky swear. You are stuck with me forever.”
He brought me some things, including a newspaper clipping from the local paper about a play he starred in and I stage-managed—one of the many ways I finagled to be in the same room with him on a regular basis. He was also forced to talk to me if he forgot his lines. It made me blush to remember what a silly little girl I had been.
He chuckled at me. “Wait, wait! That’s not all. I didn’t even know I had this. I found it when I was looking for the picture.”
He handed me a playbill for another play we had worked on together that year. I had handwritten a quote from the play, and addressed it directly to him:
Dear Jonathan, “…to be remembered if only by someone, for awhile, is a form of immortality, is it not?…”
I signed it, Love, Mindy. My former name. I stopped breathing for a moment. I had certainly written it. I didn’t remember giving it to him.
“Where in the world did you get this?”
“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure one of your girlfriends gave it to me.”
“I can’t believe you kept it all these years.”
There were a lot of awkward silences those two days. I had seen his psychological prison and now he was seeing my physical one. I’d warned him that I was no longer walking on my crutches, but I know the reality was shocking. Sometimes the children interjected themselves into the moments we couldn’t speak. Once, when Jonathan was sitting on a stool in front of our bay window, lost in his own thoughts, our seven-year-old daughter, Wren, perched herself on his lap and occupied herself looking at his hands.
“You’re not wearing a ring. We love you. You could marry us,” she said, full of the childhood innocence of how things can work. We all teared up—Jonathan, Asha, and I. “Why not?” Wren persisted. “Don’t you love my Mom? She loves you.”
“Wren, stop!” Asha and I said together.
“You could be our daddy. We don’t have one.” The memory of that slip of paper came back to taunt me. I wanted to crawl under a rock.
I felt like my past and present with Jonathan was being nailed into the same coffin. “So, this is the way it ends,” I thought. “I am everything he loathes and fears. We won’t even be friends.”
I brought him a glass of wine the last hour we spent together. We were alone in the house, and sunlight was pouring through the picture window in the living room. My cat had crawled into his lap. His hand shook when he took the wine from me. When I saw that he was crying, I got out of my chair to sit next to him.
“What is it, Jonathan ? Didn’t you get what you came here for?”
“There’s so much love in this house,” he said. “I’ve never been in a home like this. I don’t want to leave, and I don’t know why.”
Tears sprang into my eyes, too. “I don’t know whether to be complimented or insulted.” The truth was, I felt ugly and old, and it still mattered somewhere deep in my heart that I couldn’t be what he wanted.
“It’s not you. It’s just that being here I realize how I haven’t been present in my life. Not for myself. Not for my kids. I keep wondering what you saw in me.”
“I don’t. I wonder less now than I ever did. Now we all love you. You have all of us, if you ever need that.”
“I might,” he said.
The sun shone, the cat purred, and we sat quietly, holding hands, until he had to leave.
There are some connections in life that you can’t break by walking away, and there are some doors, once opened, that can never be closed again. Jonathan returned to a life which had been a safe place to hide but was now a jungle of confusion, and I was left with a feeling of incompleteness in my once-complete world. It took us awhile to admit this to each other, as though if we didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be so. But it was. Nothing was the same.
“He’s writing you again, isn’t he?” Asha asked me one night a month later.
“Yes. I didn’t think he would.”
“Not quite as comfortable in his hidey-hole, is he?” She’s pretty unflappable about these things.
“His hidey-hole is a crypt with a street address,” I said. “He uses therapy as an intellectual exercise. He needs people. He needs love. He needs us.” And then, unexpectedly, I began to cry. “It’s like I can’t get comfortable in my own skin anymore.”
“Invite him to come back.”
“I don’t think he would ever come back.”
She laughed at me, “I don’t think he can stay away. Look, ask him or don’t. It’s up to you. The kids love him. We have the apartment downstairs. It’s possible we need him as much as he needs us, you know.”
“I love him.” It was the first time I had ever said it to her. “It’s so ancient in me. I feel like he’s mine, like I can’t just leave him out in the cold anymore.”
“I know,” she said. “I feel it too, because you do. So invite him back.”
I went to my computer to write to him, only to find that he’d written me to ask if he could stay with us for a week in September—the week of my birthday. He wanted to build some ramps so I could get out of the house in my power chair. He could not forget my prison. And I could not forget his.
In late August, there was a storm, a rare tornado that touched down briefly not far from his house. His heart was stormy, too. He’d broken off his relationship. It was the last tether he had besides the phone in his hand.
He texted me, “I’m sitting outside in all this wind. I don’t care if it blows me away. I’m in the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
I texted back, “Don’t wait. Just come here now. Stay as long as you want.” And then I said a prayer for the wind to blow him home to me.
To my surprise, the next morning I awoke to an email. He wrote, “I changed my plane reservation. I’m coming in on the 18th. I’d like to stay for six weeks, if that’s okay.”
On September 18, 2012, ten days before my fifty-third birthday, Jonathan walked into our house again. It was eleven-thirty at night. Of course I had been waiting for him, staying with the kids while Asha went to the airport to pick him up. A full moon hung low by the window and cast a milky shadow across the floor. I got out of my chair and leaned against the kitchen counter as soon as I heard the car pull in. It isn’t easy for me to stand anymore, but I intended to give him a hug—the kind of face-to-face hug that most people take for granted.
He saw me standing. I felt suddenly shy that I had done it. He knew I stood up for him. I could see it in his eyes, which for once were fixed entirely upon me. He walked slowly and purposefully toward me across the kitchen floor. And he kissed me.
Thirty-eight years to the day that I wrote in my journal, “I think he’ll kiss me one day,” across time and space, improbability and impossibility, the star remembered.
Whatever happens now, he’s home.