When I first saw her, I felt as if I had always known her. It wasn’t that “love at first sight” kind of thing, it was more that she looked familiar to me. And then, from our first conversation I couldn’t picture living the rest of my life without her. I didn’t know how right I would be. But, I’m getting ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.
I’ll never forget that first night we met. It was early one spring evening and I was at the bar in America’s. She came in with some people I knew and sat at a table. I looked over and I couldn’t help staring. She left me breathless. She was dark complected and petite with a wild mane of deep brown curls. I sat there memorizing her face, those dark, bright eyes, that straight nose, I remember thinking it was kind of funny that we both had the same little round rimless glasses. Every gesture she made, every little turn of her expressive body, had me light headed and gasping for air. There was that strange feeling that she was familiar, yet I knew I had never met her before. She caught me staring and she smiled at me. A big open, fall-right-into-this-face smile. I walked over and introduced myself. Her name was Jesse.
We sat and talked all night, as if we were alone in that huge restaurant full of people. When it was time for her to go, she just stood up and said goodbye. I panicked for a second and then asked her for her phone number. She said she wouldn’t give it to me, but she said she’d take mine and promised she’d call the next night. I wrote my number on a bar napkin and I held it out toward her. When she stepped in to take it, I pulled her close and kissed her. I felt as if time stood still, right then.
She turned to go and I realized I was holding my breath. When she reached the door, she turned and smiled at me and then slipped away. The next day at work I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I’d catch myself daydreaming in the middle of trying to crunch some complex numbers. I had to put them aside and work on something less important. I thought for sure I would mess something up. By the end of the day I had to laugh. She must’ve been a dream, nobody could be that wonderful, I told myself. It must’ve been all the beer I drank, the late hour. I’d try to get back to work but then in my mind I’d see her turn and smile at me from the door, and I’d have to stop and catch my breath.
When I got home that night, she called, and we planned to meet. This is the test, I thought, when I see her it’ll be back to reality. But it was never reality with Jesse, circumstances never seemed real when she was around. I felt like nothing else mattered when I was with her, nothing else existed. Being with her was like finding a long lost twin sister. I felt like I had known her all my life. Our thoughts mirrored each other’s, every move was in sync. And I wanted to be with her every minute. No matter what we were doing we seemed to always be close enough to give a squeeze of a hand, a light touch here, a hug. She was the most affectionate person I ever met and it brought out my own demonstrative side. On the second date, we almost couldn’t wait for the movie to be over. I walked her to her apartment and she drew me in without a word. It was the most amazing night, exploring, confessing, sharing, and it was only the beginning.
Before I knew it, I was seeing her almost every night. I’d pick her up after work and we’d do anything fun we could think of. She was great at thinking up exciting things to do, often she would surprise me by not telling me what she had planned until we arrived at the spot. Some nights we’d go to see a play and others we’d end up at some smoky little jazz club I had never heard of, or just sit in an outdoor cafe and drink a bottle of wine. She’d find restaurants for us to try in every hidden corner of the city and one night we even went to the circus. On some warm summer nights, we just walked from one end of the city to the next.
All that activity died down after a while. Maybe it was just because summer ended, but I guess that happens in every relationship, you want to start settling down. Actually, I think we started staying home more often about the time I got sick. I caught one of those ravaging flues. It really caught me by surprise, so early in the fall as it was. It took me out of work for over a week, viscously attacking my respiratory system. Some nights it was so bad, I thought I would die. I don’t see how I could’ve recovered without her.
Jesse would come over every night and make me soup, sit with me, feed me. It was a horrible illness, I had to sleep propped up because of the fluid in my lungs. Sometimes I’d slip down in the middle of the night and I’d wake up choking, gasping for air.
After I got well, we continued spending more time at home. We’d meet after work, at her place or mine, have some dinner, hang out and talk or watch TV or do our own chores. I guess it was after a few months of this when I told her. I remember it was almost Thanksgiving. It was one night when we were at her place. It was very late and we had just turned out the lights. We were fast falling asleep, warm, cozy, quiet. I rolled over, took her in my arms, and told her that I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t help myself; I loved her. She didn’t say anything, just hugged me tighter and we fell asleep that way.
The next morning, she had already left for work when I woke up and I remember feeling disoriented. Her apartment didn’t look familiar, right away, as if things had been moved around. Or maybe I had just expected to wake up in my own bed.
I didn’t see her the next night, she told me she had too much work to do, and I thought nothing of it at the time. I had a little cough, sort of a wheezing, so I thought it best to just go bed early anyway. I didn’t want a relapse of that flu.
The next day, she called me at work and invited me over to her place for dinner. I almost laughed at her formality, but she sounded so serious.
We had a nice supper and she purposely kept the conversation light. Afterwards, I started to turn on the television, but she stopped me and sat me on the couch. She sat next to me, cross-legged, facing me. She smiled and tenderly caressed my hand, studying it intensely, and she told me that we had to stop seeing each other. Just like that. I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe, I thought it was some kind of a joke. But then I saw how serious she was.
She said she had needed last night to do some thinking, and that she decided it would be unfair for us to go on like this, because she didn’t feel the same way I did. When I had told her that I loved her, she realized that she’d been leading me on. I couldn’t believe her, how could I have read the signals so wrong, I was sure she loved me. It never occurred to me to hold back telling her how I felt. I told myself that she was wrong, she just didn’t know her own mind, of course she was in love with me. Give her some time and she’d realize it.
I tried to laugh it off, I told her that I wasn’t really in love with her, it was just that she was my best friend and I loved making love with her. Just because both of those things existed together didn’t necessarily mean I was in love with her. But she didn’t buy it, she said she wouldn’t see me anymore. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach, knocked the breath out of me. I didn’t know what to say then, and she kept staring at me with this sweet, concerned look. I couldn’t take it.
It was strange, because my cough got worse over the next week, but it felt different than the flu. I kept calling her but she would just let the answering machine pick up or, if I called her at work, her assistant would say that she was busy. It was driving me crazy, not seeing her, and meanwhile my cough was getting worse, I was having a lot of trouble breathing. I thought it was because I was so upset at her leaving me, that it had to be psychosomatic, or caused by stress. I had to see her. I felt that if I could just talk to her, tell her we’d do it all her way, everything would be OK.
I tried going over to her apartment, but she wouldn’t answer the door. I couldn’t find any way to get through to her. I wasn’t getting my work done, I couldn’t sleep at night, and my cough was getting worse. I felt something was gnawing inside me, something that was stealing my breath and replacing it with pain. The incredible all encompassing feeling of love I had inside had turned into a deep empty cavity of suffering.
Breathing became so uncomfortable, I finally went to see a doctor. The doctor sent me to the hospital and they did a slew of tests on me. I never had so many x-rays or gave so much blood. The next day, my doctor called to tell me that the results were in and he asked me to come down to the office. He wouldn’t tell me over the phone, which made me a little nervous. I thought it had to be something pretty serious for him to set it up like that. But I kept telling myself that there wouldn’t be anything really wrong with me.
I got to the doctor’s office and saw the look on his face, I knew what he was going to say. I knew exactly what he was going to tell me. Lung cancer. I checked into the hospital that same day. The disease was so advanced, they removed one of my lungs later that week. They let me keep the other, but they told me it wouldn’t be long before that one had been consumed.
It’s funny, all that breathlessness I had felt from her, from the flu, from the cough. Now I’m in a hospital bed and breathe pure oxygen through a tube hooked up to a machine. It’s the best I’ve been able to breathe in a long time.
I lie here thinking, about her, about my short and unproductive life. I know it’s only a matter of days. I’ve tried to come to terms with everything. She doesn’t visit me. I try to forget we ever ended. They give me drugs for the pain. I have the most incredible dreams. They’re so real, I dream about the times when we were happy. I relive that, over and over, that feeling of happiness. When I dream, it all comes back to me in a beautiful drowning flood. And, through that, through that beautiful flood of happiness, breathing doesn’t even seem necessary.
Rosanne Limoncelli copyright 2011