“I take solace in the comfort of other people’s secrets.” She confessed to me one night over a bowl of noodles. Her eyes lit up like Christmas trees. She was beautiful, and while I was comforted by the familiarity of her beauty, there was something that stole my breath away when I was in her presence. It was not as though I had never been in the company of beauty before. I knew women with long legs, curves in all the right places, hair that shone like it was streaked with shoe polish. Her beauty was astounding. When I held her in my arms later that night, her hair smelled of the ocean, and I immediately felt lost at sea.
When she handed me her heart and told me I could keep it, I should have known there was a cost. No one hands you something that valuable and expects not to be repaid somehow. She was a Christian girl; perhaps I thought it an act of charity, but though she was filled with a faith and fervor in a god I didn’t understand, she was also as selfish and greedy as Judas. Her eyes were often on the thirty pieces of silver dangled high above her reach, and I was just waiting for the ultimate betrayal. I should have asked more questions. That, or I should have run.
And that is my preface to love.
When I first met Erin, I thought love was the emotion that kept people buoyant, that kept them afloat. I thought love was the fire set ablaze that keeps hot air balloons from sinking. Instead, I felt heavy, weighted-down. All her secrets and all my memories whirled around inside of me like a Midwestern tornado. Why did no one tell me that love keeps you tethered to the ground and reminds you of the darkest parts of yourself you don’t want anyone to know?
The problem can be succinctly summarized as this: I don’t fall in love. I may have dated in the past. I may have found myself in the company of beautiful women. I went on dates, but I felt the same way about those dates as I do a night of heavy drinking. It’s enjoyable while I am immersed in the process, but the next morning, when my head is blaring like a stereo with its subwoofers screaming noise at me, my mind prickles with the question of “why?”
I keep my shoelaces knotted. I don’t stoop for anyone. When I was seven, I thought I was in love with a girl. Her eyes were green. I kissed her hand on the playground, and she sneered at me, and less-than-beautiful words fell from her lips. She muttered something about “cooties” and ran away from me. I don’t fall in love.
Emotions complicate things. If we analyzed everything with our hearts, decisions would take three times as long to make. The heart is a fickle, selfish bastard, which is why it doesn’t serve me any good. I’ve been told I have a heart of tin, but doesn’t tin crush easily? My heart is not easily compacted. I suppose the point was that my heart was absent during times like these. I have been slapped on dates before and told how much shame I should feel, but should I? Just because I want certain things out of life and a relationship isn’t priority one on my list.
Erin opened me up to an entire world I never knew existed before. It was going from the black-and-white two-dimensional set to a life bedazzled in Technicolor. I felt like Dorothy stepping into Oz. Everything blazed my eyes, and it was wonderful and terrible simultaneously. Before Erin, I had served in the Army. I was a soldier. I had always been better with a gun lofted high and viewing life through the cross-hairs. People assumed that meant I knew how to look the enemy in the eye, but it gave me a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach because I knew it meant I was still incapable of facing down my demons. If a girl told me I had cooties to this day, I wouldn’t be drawn to tears, but it would give me reason to hesitate.
I didn’t realize that by fighting in a war I didn’t believe in, I was perpetuating the myth of America overseas. I didn’t realize by fighting the enemy, I was keeping my own personal enemy hostage in my heart. His mouth was gagged, and it was quite possible we would never hear from him again. This is why the heart stays mute while the brain processes the reasons and analyzes the cost-benefit ratio. Never did I realize by observing the ghosts on the battle field, I would be garnering a life skill to be bartered with my first great love, Erin McConnell. Little did I know, I would be falling in love with a ghost.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The therapist or whoever recommended I keep this journal advised I focus my concentration on communicating effectively. She emphasized that a tenet of communication is chronology. She encouraged me to write the story from the beginning and to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. I wanted to tell her is timelines bend and curve when you’re in love. You swear you have known one another for lifetimes, your souls bonded to one another’s. It’s such bull shit. Memories shift and distort just like broken promises and shattered memories. Love is like the Autobahn. There is no speed limit, and you can’t go in reverse. Inevitably, you end up crashing into a brick wall that was there all along, hiding in plain sight. The result is shattered glass, crumpled metal, and smoldering fire all around. You’re lucky if you live.
You’re luckier if you don’t.
As I said before, Erin took comfort in displaying other people’s secrets in the air. It was like an exhibition of sorts for her. Some women painted and set up a display in a gallery. Erin’s artistry lie in betraying her dearest friends’ trust and splintering it like a cheap piece of plywood. I’m not trying to say Erin was a gossip or untrustworthy (though she was both of those things), but she found other people’s lives fascinating. In an attempt to make her own life appear fascinating, she revealed these trinkets of people’s lives as though they were five-cent souvenirs instead of confessions of miscarriages and affairs, love gone wrong, the past tense of live–people dying with so much left to live for. When I met her, she was in the middle of telling her best friend Beth about some high school girlfriend who got an abortion. Her eyes were animated and shining, lined in black, yet there was something strangely elegant about her.
I wanted to take her outside and show her the stars, point out constellations I didn’t know the name of. I wanted to show her the full moon and tell her the statistics of people doing stupid things under the glow of the full moon. It was the reason I had for falling in love with her that night. People kill each other on nights the moon is full. Little did I know I would be killing myself for this girl’s love. She drank and sat, perched on her bar stool, like she was a delicate flower, and when I approached her, I had to remember she wasn’t just another leggy, beautiful girl. I was sick of that bar. I was sick of the pick-up lines. I had been there a hundred times before. It was a routine that was tired. And at that point, I was exhausted.
I wanted to take her by the hand and explain to her that I wasn’t the type to fall in love. But every time I gazed into her eyes, I wanted to talk to her about love. This was brand new for me, but I knew it was a feeling I would never tire of. I felt like my heart was sloping down into my stomach, and I knew no other reason than to blame Erin for it. When she drew near, her hair smelled of salt and freshness, and I wanted to swim in that smell for lifetimes.
I convinced myself I could handle something casual with her. I had spoken with Beth who was from around here. Beth had dated my best friend. I remember Beth slapping me on the arm and begging me not to hurt Erin. I didn’t know now that wasn’t what she had to worry about. She told me Erin wanted to start seeing someone new but wanted something different. Said that she was in town on Spring Break and that Beth herself had already told her about me. Beth insisted Erin was tired of the liars and the cheats and those who just used her. I knew I wouldn’t use her. I would cherish every inch of her and worship her.
I thought I could handle our lips mashed against each other’s. I thought I could handle that because that’s all I’ve handled before. I thought maybe I would have her scribble her number on a scrap of paper, and I could call when I was drunk and lonely. She was from Florida where she felt grains of sand between her toes, but she didn’t always feel blades of grass. When she described Disney as a “bastard who fell asleep in sheets of hundred dollar bills woven together”, I knew.
I knew nothing would ever come easy for me again. I was sinking to the ground, scooping my jaw off the floor. This girl was magical and had guts of steel. I’m not the type to fall in love upon first glance, nor am I the type who understands or believes in love as anything more than something programmed inside of us to continue to spawn more offspring, but there was something I found in her no one else. She was a rare gem. Unlike diamonds that glittered and begged for your attention, Erin was a geode with the potential of so much more once you cracked her open.
I would be gentle. I wouldn’t take a hammer to her. Instead, I would slowly, delicately explore her and count her breaths like some count sheep to fall asleep. We would eventually go to parties together, though neither of us were interested in parties anymore. We would pretend to like the music but on the ride home, grumble about it and play alternative rock music instead.
That night we met, I thought I’d be calm, confident, instead my palms grew damp with sweat, and I wiped them on my jeans as I headed over. I took her outside to better hear her speak, and though the first words out of her mouth weren’t memorable, her voice husky with cigarette smoke and drawling over each word as though pouring conversation out of a whiskey barrel, I knew I was in trouble.
I wanted to carry her somewhere very far away from the city lights and lay her down. I wanted to whisper secrets she could repeat to no one all over her body with my tongue. I wanted Erin to know what love felt like from a man with a tin heart. But my heart was evolving and changing.
I wanted to show her the changing seasons of my heart. That it wasn’t always a bitter cold winter. Sometimes, it blossomed to life like spring. Or it burned red-hot flames like the fiery passions of summer. Though I knew she couldn’t hold onto a secret even if it was dipped in the tongues of passion, I wanted to tell her everything. I wanted to expose my autobiography to her and have her memorize who I was so she could know I was to become. I wanted her to know me backwards and forwards and be able to go on a television trivia show and be quizzed about the various aspects of my life.
I wanted to tell Erin about how it felt to shoot a man. I wanted to tell her the nightmares I had when I first joined the service. I wanted to tell her about men with eyes the color of death and skin the color of stone. She didn’t want to hear about the enemy or the fallen soldier. She didn’t want to hear how I had tasted death but somehow rallied back. She grabbed me and kissed me. I remember being surprised she tasted of bourbon.
The second night, I took her to a restaurant with linen table cloths and a salad option before the meal. They served warm, fresh bread with butter. It was not a five-star restaurant or a restaurant with two Michelin stars, but it was upscale. Candles at each table, a waiter and a busser who wore dress pants instead of jeans. Instead, of telling me tales of strangers and the secret lives they lived like she was known to do, Erin told me her own secrets, and her secrets undulated in the air between the two of us, rising and falling like breath. Listening to her discuss her past and her own secrets drew me in. It was like listening to a magician reveal how he performed a certain trick. Certainly there was sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors, but I found the performance mesmerizing and genuine, authentic.
I listened as she described her childhood in Florida. The stories of finding alligators in the creeks and the elderly men getting their prescriptions of Viagra filled in the grocery stores. She told me about her brothers and her sister. Her dog named Fred. These were the stories where I really began to listen. Her hands gesturing dramatically, this is where it became interesting. This is where one if he or she looked closely enough could see a mosaic being created. A beautiful woman being formed. A tile of glass here, a ceramic shard there, slide a sliver of porcelain there, and seal it all with grout. Before you know it, you have a living, breathing beauty in front of you. Her family was the grout that held her together. Without them, she would have been in pieces on the floor in front of me. Instead, she stared at me with eyes as wide as saucers. Her beauty wound tight as a cord around my neck. I thought it a collar. Eventually, it would become a noose. It was only the second date. Her cheeks were flushed from the bourbon, and her lips were as red as cherries.
Her eyes flashed with an excited gleam as she grabbed my thigh and squealed, “Jon, I think I know you better than anyone I have ever, ever met before!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she knew herself better than anyone. She hardly knew me. The whole time we ate, from the mussels that were our appetizer, to the salads, all the way through dinner and our molten chocolate cake, she told me stories of her childhood, her family, her best friend Beth, her ex-boyfriends, and former lovers. She told me about her church and how her religion was so important to her. How it saved her. When she began talking about God and religion, I felt a little ache in my heart because it seemed so innocent, so naïve.
But at the moment, I was her church, her God, her choir, and yet, my heart made of tin crumpled into a tighter fist as I resisted the urge to tell her she didn’t know me at all. I knew her insides. I knew right where to make an incision to make her bleed. I knew all about her dog named Fred and how when they put him to sleep, Erin couldn’t go, but she curled in a ball on her bed, holding his favorite rag bone all night.
I wanted to tell her that though I knew how to make her bleed and though I knew her weakest points, I would never hurt her. I wanted to tell her I would unplug the stars and pull the moon down to Earth for her. I would string the stars into a necklace for her and leave the moon in the hall leading to her bedroom as a night light. I truly loved this girl, but when I went to tell her these things, a light came into her eyes, and she suggested dancing.
The couples around us all passed away years ago. They were past their expiration dates, held together by pins and wires, invisible marionette strings. Their smiles were forced and the teeth fake. Their wrinkles were the most genuine things about them, and their wrinkles ran deep like someone had let them sit out in the sun for too long, and the wrinkles were baked into their being.
We spent all week like this. Holding hands in public places, going to the park, and the movies where everything was dark and cool like a cave, and Erin fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. I took her to the carousel ride and we rode on the backs of horses with wings as wide as eagles’. It was all very magical when it came to an unceremonious end.
She was in my bedroom, examining the floor, I don’t know what she saw there, whether it was dust bunnies or dirty socks. But she kept her eyes glued to the floor. I didn’t speak much because I knew it would be over soon. “Well, Erin,” I remember saying.
“Jon,” she managed to mumble, her eyes not quite reaching mine. I took two long strides across the room, took her chin and pulled it up so she could peer into my eyes. I was struck breathless by her beauty once more. She devastated me with a crushing beauty I was unfamiliar with before this week began.
“Jon,” she said again with a greater conviction this time. “I know this will sound crazy…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes fled mine and instead, circled the room like a bird of prey searching for a carcass.
“It won’t.” I said softly.
“I love you.” She said without looking at me. I didn’t expect my heart to explode like fireworks, but it did. I was positive she could hear the explosions, but luckily, there were no telltale signs. I don’t know what it was about Erin McConnell that made me want to keep her safe, tell her monsters weren’t real, and hold her during the rain storms. I wanted to teach her the joy of picking apples in the fall and show her my high school where she could see my football jersey in the locker room. I wanted to teach her about my past, so she could see the mosaic that formed me.
I didn’t answer me when she told me she loved me initially because the moment was broken by my lips tentatively exploring her own. We kissed for what felt like hours, days, lifetimes. Nothing buried the silence we had burnt into each other’s hearts. We could be completely still and somehow manage to say every word necessary. I nuzzled her neck, brushed a curl away, as the smell of the ocean flooded me.
I murmured. “I love you too, Erin.” The world vanished as I inhaled the smell of salt water. It was delicious. Intoxicating. And I knew in that moment, I would follow her anywhere.
The way I left wasn’t as though I were a thief or ashamed. I called my friends and family. We had a giant barbecue, and I threw all my stuff into duffle bags. Clothes, music, movies, my phone. It was time for a new beginning. If my life was a book, this was not merely a new chapter, it was a new part of the book entirely broken away from what existed before.
We left later that night, feeling like bride and groom, getting the proper send-off and well wishes from family and friends. Beth stood at a picnic table at the barbecue, hands on her hips, but grinning the entire time.
When we got to Florida, my hair was slick with sweat and sleep dust crusted to my eyelashes. I remember when she first introduced me to her father. He was almost six inches taller than me so I had to look up to look him in the eye, and I am not what most would describe as short. He was a heavy-set man who looked like he played football, and when he talked to me about his family’s legacy, I couldn’t help notice his fingers were as thick as sausage links. When he told me about his football career, I couldn’t tell if he was trying to intimidate me or welcome me. Regardless, whenever the man spoke, I listened with a school-boy attentiveness and earnestness. He and his wife, Valerie, a slim woman with smooth, silky hair, welcomed me into their home with a kindness I did not expect.
They pointed out to me the first night I was there Jesus would have accepted strangers into His Almighty home, so why were they turn to anyone down? Erin smiled at their logic, but it was not a belittling smile, it was one of gratitude and faith. I was raised to be atheist. My background makes me atheist as anyone who saw men with eyes the color of stones and skin the color of death.
When we sat down to breakfast the next morning, Erin sat beside me and clutched my hand, her father held hers, her brother held mine, and pretty soon, all of us were holding hands in some way, shape, or fashion. At first, I felt moderately disturbed and uncomfortable, but then, when I saw them duck their heads, I realized this was a religious moment. I too bowed my head in respect and listened as her father said a little morning prayer. They all echoed their, “Amen’s” and we began to eat.
It was a bigger breakfast than my mother ever made for my father and me. Biscuits and gravy, a stack of bacon seeping grease onto a paper towel, toast, eggs cooked all different ways, oranges, grapefruits, and bananas. My eyes popped open at the spread of food on display.
Every day, there were home-cooked meals, and Erin and her brothers and sister never seemed to feel like there was anything out of the ordinary about them. Every Sunday, as a former coach for the high school football team, some of Erin’s former high school classmates would stop over for brunch.
One morning, a former receiver lingered at the beverage station Valerie had set up and began to talk to Erin. I am secure enough I don’t need to listen in on her conversations, but when she started to look around with concern flecking her eyes, I walked over to the long, granite counter top and peeled some slippery bacon off a tray. I listened from a distance.
“Erin, how have you been?” It started off an innocent question. The two conversed, her eyes always leading back to me.
When she introduced me to him, I saw the hungry look in his eye. I recognized it as desire but thought nothing of it. Erin giggled and told me he used to be on the swim team. It started as a secret. I saw the excitement in her eyes. The same thrill she got every time she revealed one. “And,” she continued, “he would leave his Speedo on underneath his clothes. He was convinced that it made his, ahem,” she cleared her throat, “package look larger.”
I burst out laughing. As time went on, Ian stopped by more regularly than the other guys. He always tried to catch Erin’s eye at the table. I’d squeeze her hand. One night, we were watching television in the den with her sister and her brothers, when Michael, Erin’s oldest brother, smirked to her younger sister. “Remember how gaga Erin was over Ian in high school? He would drop a pencil, and she would hold onto it for months.”
“You were?” I glanced over at Erin.
“I had a crush on him but nothing as psychotic as my dopey older brother made it out to be.”
Later, that night, Erin leaned into me as we watched television and told me how Ian played Bunco with the elderly and cheated so he would win. She saved a bouquet of flowers he handed her in a ceremony for prom queen. They were dried and felt like tissue paper. I wished my heart were tin. I missed the secrets of strangers.
When Erin and I moved into an apartment the size of a thimble, she placed crosses on the walls as though she were warding off a nation of vampires. I took each cross down and wrapped them in tissue paper as though they were expensive trinkets. Carefully, cautiously, I put each of them in a Rubbermaid container for storage. Her eyes were wet with tears when she saw what I had done.
This is where the timeline began to bend and crack. She grew distant. Her heart was luggage marked “Fragile”, and I didn’t know how to handle dried flowers. I was tired of the prayer and the stories of others’ secrets. Her voice became dull. No longer was she interested in the lines of my lean body or interested in sharing the curves of her own. No longer could I dip my fingers into her sweet presence. It was as though every access point were cordoned off to the general public, and my admission price was lost in the process.
Occasionally she murmured softly about love. Occasionally I was foolish enough to believe her. It was an outrageous act of faith, but I had begun to believe in anything In love, in miracles, in men rising from the dead.
That’s why I bought a ring that glimmered with hope and love and diamonds. It was foolish at best, idiotic at worst. For a man with a heart of tin, the dried flowers weighed on my conscience a lot. Why would she keep these mementos of her past if her future belonged to us? My past was packed in a box and headed toward a junk yard. She was my future, my now, my everything.
I found myself working at her father’s grocery store. He often gestured toward me when talking to customers. His sausage fingers waving around in the air, and sometimes, he’d call me over and say complimentary things that sounded like they were in a foreign language as he jabbed me in the chest. I knew I should be able to understand him, but he felt so big, so unreal to me. Sometimes, I thought of him as a cartoon character with his thick mustache and large gut. His fingers thick and fleshy. His laugh was loud and made other people look in our direction. I felt like a teenager again, awkward and bumbling.
He watched me all the time. His eyes were stern, but he smiled a lot. When Erin and I fell asleep at night, I felt reluctant to touch her. Her body was as beautiful as ever. Healthy, toned, smooth. But I felt her father’s eyes bearing down upon me. His sausage fingers ripping me from limb to limb.
Erin’s lips barely lingered over mine for longer than a moment. Sometimes, she would curve her body around mine, but sometimes, she wouldn’t. There were days I would snake an arm around her waist and pull her toward me, and sometimes, I felt her flinch and tense in my embrace.
One of the times, she tensed and unwrapped herself out of my hold. Her expression was pained, but it was only momentary. She replaced that expression with a smile, and as she held out a slender hand, I took it back into mine. “Kiss me?” She whispered. I tilted my head toward her and gently embraced her. My tongue slipped underneath hers and wrestled with hers. It was a passionate exchange of love, and my heart warmed at the gesture. The rest of the week was written from love letters penned in our fingertips like finger-painting for paramours.
When I found the courage to ask the question I thought I was too smart to ever ask, I had been carrying the ring with me for weeks. I found it was unnoticeable, and my heart of tin was transforming. I wanted to love. I even began to murmur prayers in the dark to a god I swore wouldn’t listen to my plaintive cries. When I found the courage to ask her what I had deemed an unnecessary risk, I was a changed man. She had brought beauty and faith into my life. Healing and hope. Happiness and loyalty.
The day began with breakfast cooked by Valerie, scarfed down by her entire family, and as I helped Valerie clean the dishes, Erin watched me with an indecipherable look on her face. I guess I must have interpreted it as love or something like it because I winked at her, my hands soapy. Valerie sighed as she scraped the plates clean. A smile brightened her face as though the sigh had merely been one of delightful glee. When I looked at the calendar, a silver foil star blockaded the date, but I knew it was the end of December. Everyone had discussed goals and wishes and resolutions all morning. We had reservations to eat somewhere fancy. Somewhere the men wore suits and fancy watches and the women wear dresses that shimmered and sparkled. Erin would look like a pin-up girl with voluptuous curves and thick, rich curls, and a flirtatious smile.
Erin smiled at me right then. Her smile still managed to steal my breath away. When I told her I loved her, I thought of the curve of her smile. It made everything melt away and dissolve like sugar glass growing wet. When I took her by the hand, I knew what I had to do. I knew I couldn’t wait until that evening. I couldn’t wait for the ball to drop and flutes of glass to be filled with champagne. I couldn’t wait to taste the seafood platter and then anxiously await her response.
I was ready.
This was now. There were no dress rehearsals. No stunt doubles. I wouldn’t drop to my knee. I wasn’t that guy, but I felt like the guy with eyes the color of death and skin the color of stone. As I pulled the ring from my pocket, her face fell before I could even speak. The lower half of her face crumpled as her eyes filled faster than rain buckets. “Jon,” her voice broke, “I have to tell you something.”
The words tumbled out faster than either of us imagined, but she told me her secrets all of them. She had always loved Ian. She loved him when he wore his Speedo underneath his clothing. She loved him when he handed her a bouquet of flowers. She loved him and held onto notes he passed her in high school, and she had been seeing him on the days I went into the grocery store to work.
My heart didn’t shatter as much as it stopped. It quit its beating and became a piece of crumpled newsprint wrapped around tin foil. She could keep her dried flowers and her memory book. Erin was destined for this fool. They were high school soulmates, and every time I thought about it, it poisoned me.
Why would I even come down to the hellish Florida for her? Everything that ever attracted me to her repulsed me now. I found myself nearly gagging looking at her. She was repulsive. Worse than that, the woman who couldn’t keep a single secret kept the biggest one from me for fourteen months.
There was no way I could love a woman like that, so, sure you may say my heart is made of tin, but I say it’s better to be a safe man than a man with eyes the color of death and skin the color of stone.