It happened relatively slowly. It was my mind at first. I was in no shape to go anywhere, really. Mel gave me the slow shifts at the diner so I didn’t make any tips. I just wiped the same tables over and over again, or tucked myself into the corner near the kitchen drying silverware. They didn’t let me handle the glassware because my hands had begun to shake.
I took long smoke breaks. No one bothered me. No one dared, I suppose. At least not for the first month. By the second month, people started to look at me with a bit less sympathy in their eyes.
I didn’t notice. I wish I could have noticed the kindness that radiated at me. All I felt was the cold and the horror of being in a strange place alone.
But it didn’t matter. I could have been anywhere and I still would have felt alone. I still would have been horrified to wake up in the middle of the night hoping to see Eve and not seeing her. I still would have sat with a cup of coffee blowing smoke out of the window all night, thinking about the first time we walked those streets together.
You see, it really is impossible to forget your first love. It is not just some romantic notion that someone made up for the sake of telling a story. Eve was my first love, and she was as much a part of me as– me. There’s an expression my parents use that roughly translates to “heart and liver,” or all of the important organs. They use it when referring to something that makes them feel a lot. That makes their hearts ache. When they are sad or earnest or both.
And I was both. I didn’t want much of anything. I didn’t know how to be alive. I didn’t know how to breathe the morning air any more. I forgot which way our favorite convenience store was. I got lost walking the streets.
I wandered around, hoping to run into her ghost. Instead there were sad-looking men and women in foul-smelling clothing who often met me with eyes as empty as my own. Mel worried about me. She worried that I’d get hurt. She worried that I needed someone to care for me. She worried that I wasn’t going to survive.
I didn’t care about survival. I had small pleasures. The slap of my worn shoes on concrete, their soles nearly worn through. The sound of striking a match. The feel of a small plastic lighter in my hands, the metal flint rough against my thumb. The first drag of a cigarette in the morning.
It went on that way for months. I didn’t notice how much time passed. I paid the bills that I could pay. As much as I could. Mel offered to let me stay with her. I didn’t accept. Didn’t want to. Didn’t want to be so near another living breathing person who wasn’t Eve.
It was idiotic. When the first eviction notice came, I wasn’t surprised. I was, in a way, relieved. I had an excuse, then. To leave.
I had stopped paying rent. I tried to pay it on time in the first months. I cashed my checks, got the money orders, slipped them into the manager’s mailbox. And then I just stopped.
I found myself without the wherewithal to cash my checks. To walk to the bank. To ask for the money order. To do anything. To even open the checks. A pile of them grew on the low, scratched bookshelf by the door. The tip jar stopped growing.
It flashed at me all the time. “For emergencies,” Eve had said. She had not told me that the emergency would leave me alone like this. She had not mentioned that it would be possible to feel so alone. She had not told me that she meant for the cash to go toward her funeral, the expenses of death. The cremation. Having her ashes sent to her family. I was alone with her on that last day, the day before she became dust again.
I hoped that her parents would scatter her ashes in the forest. She was not meant to be kept cooped up in an urn on the mantle, or in a closet. I had heard stories of people who were cremated whose next of kin or close friend did nothing with their ashes. They were just left in plastic packets at the bottom of a drawer. A stark black and white label on them that proclaimed their identity. A person who was no longer a person, but a pile of ashes in a bag in a drawer. What ends up happening to those people who have no one to be sent to? Are they cremated? Are they buried? Where do they go when there is no one to pay for their final resting place?
The thought crossed my mind that I should have kept her ashes with me. I should have dropped them bit by bit in this city. So that she could find her way into the cracks and grow up through the weeds and the flowers and the trees. I should have done that, I thought. I should have found a way to make her a part of this place. I sent her away because I did not want to have to hold onto her at a time when she could not hold back. It is that simple, really. The pain of wondering what she would have felt, what she would have said, passing by a spot on the street.
The day the first eviction notice came, I began to gather our things. I packed Eve’s clothes into a bag and took it to the secondhand store. Whoever wore it would never know that they were wearing a dead woman’s clothes, but that was not so terrible anyway. They would be wearing the clothes of a woman who had done her share of living while she was alive and hopefully the essence of her would rub into their skin, too. I was sure of it.
I kept a single item: a yellow scarf. I remembered the day when she got it. We were wandering as we usually did, going south and east, making random turns here and there, and then we found ourselves in a throng of people. Trucks and cars and people crowded the streets. Brightly colored awnings were raised and the scent of stale urine was overwhelmed by the aroma of bacon and onions cooking on street carts. We wandered through the whole area, watching the people. The storefronts all had their wares hanging. There were blankets and coats and purses and everything that one would expect to find in that area. There were fake perfumes and fake purses and shoes that did not quite look like what they were supposed to look like.
Eve walked into a store with brightly colored scarves cascading over its open door. Of course she chose the yellow one. It was thin material, and soft. She paid a few dollars for it and wrapped it around her neck. It was a shock of color against her skin, against her clothes. It made her eyes seem all the brighter. I laughed at her. That day we meandered through the area and we laughed and I did not know she was sick. I did not have to think about it. I did not even have to know it, really. At that moment, Eve was not hurting, she was not ill, she was not losing her breath bit by bit. I kept the scarf because that was a day, that might have been a day, when she did not have to think about being ill. When she did not have to think about leaving me, because the possibility seemed so far away.
Strange when possibilities that seem distant, that seem not to touch us, somehow find their way into our lives and then they are all we know.
All of the bags were already packed by the time the second notice came. I was living out of the bags already. I washed my clothes in the little kitchen sink.
By the time the final notice came with the angry red ink announcing that I must vacate, I had already begun dragging furniture out of the building. The tip jar was collected in my pocket. I had thrown out anything that would not fit into the single bag I had.
I had entered the building in love. I was not alone when I first entered it. I was with Eve. I had everything.
When I left the building, I still had everything. Everything that I had in the world was with me. Eve was gone. That was what mattered most to me. That she was gone and that there was no way to find her.
When I left the building, I left with nothing, really. I had everything I wanted or needed in the world with me. I carried the bag over my shoulder, got to the street, and chose a direction. I passed by the diner where I was supposed to be working.
I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t return to anywhere we had been together. I had to leave. I had to get away from these persistent memories, and the persistent ache of Eve’s imprint all over the streets.