She’s run out of love, as though it’s a commodity to be purchased at the corner store. Emily’s never stopped loving anyone, not the boy who passed her notes when they were five years old, not the old woman who made her the hideous green and yellow scarf that she never wore. Her love never grows nor falters, not for the great aunt she’d met only once on her first Christmas away from home, not for the goldfish she had taken home from the county fair as a little girl, nor any of its replacements. She simply loves, as if she has no choice, embracing the feeling and then tucking it away for safekeeping.
She doesn’t keep in touch with anyone she once loved, but she doesn’t forget. She wonders about the friend in college who wished he could be more, but she doesn’t call to inquire or wish him well, or even just to tell him that she still loves him–not quite in the way he wishes she would, but that she does all the same–and always will. She can’t recall the last time she spoke to her cousin Margaret, but remembers when the little girl had dressed up as her for Halloween as though it had happened everyday since. “Is that my old shirt?” Emily had wondered aloud, and without waiting for an answer, she asked the little girl, whose hair was let down from its usual ponytail, “Who are you supposed to be?” “I’m you,” the five year old implored as though it should be obvious, and each stood heartbroken at the thought of not recognizing themselves in the other.
These miniature devastations compiled throughout her life, and each weighed on her separately and to different degrees. As she approached a turtle crossing the road, she would hesitate and let off the gas, but her indecision and ultimate choice not to pull over would eat at her for weeks. Rejection was all she felt when she passed Bobby Livingston in the hallways of the sixth grade, and the feeling remained when he offered his congratulations upon our high school graduation. Unable to find it in herself to do the same, she congratulated me instead, kissing me warmly on the cheek even though we hadn’t spoken once in the four years. Even at the age when she only wore overalls, she was equally saddened with each goldfish’s burial, and couldn’t find the beauty of the cascading sunflowers growing out as headstones, nor appreciate the tranquility their shadows offered her starved friends.
Even as she grew older, she remained a child and was constantly unsure of her ever-changing self. She didn’t know of all the hidden partitions within herself where she could disperse her pain and wait for it to fade away in its solidarity, and so instead, she kept all her emotions–the hysterical laughter and distracted half-smiles, the gasping cries and the methodical sobs–in the most obvious place, at her dead center, where they would fester and grow for the rest of her life. From the beginning, she had made the childlike mistake of never letting go of her love, and like fireworks by the campfire, she held all of her love close to her heart.
By the time I saw Emily, her heart was already shriveled and cold. It wasn’t my fault that she could no longer love, or even that she couldn’t love me. I won’t say it was her own fault, and I won’t say that she wasted her love on those who didn’t–or couldn’t– deserve it. I’ll only say that once she had love, she didn’t know what to do with it. Love did not flow throughout her body, keeping her warm and forgiving. Her heart held all of her love and pain until the feelings took up every inch of space. And like too many others, it was already too late for Emily when she learned that pain feeds on love– hunting without hunger, as only humans do–until the love is picked clean and left unrecognizable. Her pain continued to grow and grow until the melting pot of emotion that stirred inside her chest simply ran out of room for new love or new pain. Slowly, ever slowly, it cooled and eventually froze.
It was a mutual friend from so many years earlier that called me with the news that Emily was sick. “An enlarged heart,” she told me, as if I hadn’t already known. When I went that evening to visit her, I found her with an IV in her arm, nutrients running through her body before coming to a halting stop, like a traffic jam that won’t let up. And though her face was skinny and pale, I instantly recognized my first love. I stood quietly, hesitant to wake her, but her eyes blinked open at the sound of a single teardrop splattering onto the linoleum floor. “Who are you supposed to be?” she asked, as though waking from a dream.
“It’s me,” I said, “the boy who passed you notes when we were five years old.”
“Of course,” she bemoaned, tears already forming in the corners of her eyes. She could see the pain in my eyes–where I had long ago decided to keep mine–but she was heartbroken to not recognize herself in them. She remembered the childish love letters and even the innocent kiss that I could only assume she’d forgotten, because unlike for me, those memories were not tent-poles for a lifetime of false hope. She took them anyways–took them like a child, eagerly and without hesitation–and used my continuing, hidden love as an ice pick to try to chip away at her heart. She hoped to send crystal shards flying, her own memories scattering and melting into tiny pools of discontentment. “You keep finding your way back into my life,” she told me, “Like a note that’s been thrown away and found rewritten, pinned to my chest.”
Perhaps the pin went too deep, piercing her heart and letting the pain overflow, dripping down her body, drowning her. Perhaps her heart burst like a frozen bottle run under hot water when I offered her a reminder. Or perhaps in that moment, she did what she no longer thought she could. Perhaps in her last breath, she fell in love with me, suffocating on that last contented sigh that she would never let out. Perhaps she died as she had lived, full of unrelenting love.