I blew it with Janice. And I did it in the most trite way possible, a one-night stand, dinner and sex with a co-worker. One of Janice’s friends spotted me eating that dinner I’ll regret forever. I didn’t know that, however, when I went to Janice’s apartment the next night with a two hundred dollar bottle of Cabernet, disgusted by what I’d done and planning to come clean.
“Good choice,” Janice said when I handed her the bottle. She took it to the kitchen to open it, or so I assumed. When she didn’t return I went and found her crying, pouring the wine down the sink.
“We’re done,” she said. “I trusted you. Now I don’t.”
That’s how I lost her, the only woman I’ve ever loved unreservedly. She found it in her heart, though, to remain friends with me. Six months later, when she moved to Chicago, I drove her to the airport. “Don’t shut me out, please,” I said when I hugged her.
“I’ll always talk to you, Myles,” she said.
We parted that day, but I never truly said goodbye to her because I never stopped loving her.
When I met Janice, at twenty-four, I considered myself quite the stud simply because I’d managed to get it up and figured out where to put it.
“Go deeper,” Janice whispered, the first time we made love.
“Really?” I said. I had no idea where the line might be between pleasing a woman and hurting her.
“Yes, yes. Deeper.”
I’d never been with a woman who made love in that unguarded way, with such urgency and utter commitment. I felt a little overwhelmed.
“Come on, go with me,” she said, and finally I caught the spirit of it, did all I could to match her frank hunger, her beautiful recklessness.
Afterwards, I saw what a fool I’d been in my lovemaking, too much the spectator, worried about myself and my performance, watching the moment when I should have been blinded by it.
Janice liked to nudge me with her painter’s eye, too. In downtown Boston one day she pointed at a skyscraper. “What do you see?”
“Sixty stories of hell,” I said.
“But look – see the aura of sunlight along the left edge? And down the street there, look how strangely the shadow falls.”
I loved her intelligence and curiosity, and the fact that she hadn’t been lobotomized by pop culture. She didn’t think the history of art began with a Campbell soup can, the history of music with Elvis, the history of philosophy with Dr. Phil. I loved the way she was always humming something, her voice rich and in tune, her selections varied and surprising, “The Skye Boat Song” to snatches of Corelli.
I treasured her physically too, her wide hips, thick black hair, wall-eyed breasts, nipples broad circles of pale pink. And she had true milk skin that fascinated me. I’d search that skin sometimes, pawing her and rolling her over, looking for a mole or some dusk of birthmark, while she’d laugh, then get twitchy and hyper-ticklish and make me stop. Three freckles, pinheads, were the only marks on her. After we separated I recalled that skin and linked it to her life in such a way that I never worried about her. How could someone with Janice’s verve and intelligence, a person with skin like that — triumphal skin — ever fall into the clumsy hands of chance?
Last July, when I heard she’d been killed, I felt breathless and weak for days.
She’d gone out for dinner with friends at some northside Chicago restaurant. She left the gathering early to meet a gallery owner and plan a show of her paintings. Maybe she was buzzed from the dinner wine, or distracted, thinking about the meeting to come. As Janice crossed the street, a pickup truck ran her down. Hit-and-run. She died painfully, I was told, gasping and bleeding on oil-slick asphalt still hot from the blazing summer day.
I attended the memorial service in Sycamore, Illinois, Janice’s hometown. That evening, while walking downtown, I glimpsed her little girl ghost up ahead of me on the sidewalk, passing the storefronts, ponytail swaying. But more Janice wasn’t what I was looking for. What I needed was some way to say goodbye to her, once and for all.
I enjoy meeting people. I listen, flatter, tease, encourage. Meeting people is easy. Goodbyes, though, come hard. When people you love depart, when they leave to return to their lives far away, how can you not feel some unease? They’re leaving, after all, the only place where you exercise any control whatsoever, the tiny arc of life within reach of your eyes. At goodbyes I search for words, then stumble over them. I say too much, then wish I’d said more, or said what I’d really meant to say.
What would I have said to Janice if I’d been among her friends at that restaurant, when she’d stood up to leave and I’d somehow known I was seeing her for the last time?
I kept walking. Twilight fell, and I entered a little park. Bryant Park, the sign said. A tree shadow broke and bent into odd angles as it fell across benches, a swing set, a gazebo. A fountain splashed, throwing up rainbow mist against the glow of streetlamps. A spattery rush of raindrops began falling, but out to the west a hole in the clouds opened into a cave of stars. Fading light, a misty fountain, rain, stars, shadow. “Bryant Park At Twilight.” A painting Janice would have noticed, but one I might have missed if she hadn’t taken me deeper. My eyes were partly her eyes, and always would be.
That’s when it came to me. “Janice,” I said, “I’ll always talk to you.”
There it was, the goodbye I’d searched for, right there in the generous and steadfast love Janice had given me. All I’d ever needed to do was give it back.
Douglas Campbell‘s fiction has appeared online and in print, in publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Every Day Fiction, The Northville Review, Vestal Review, and Short Story America. Douglas lives and writes in southwestern Pennsylvania.