“An Echo; A Stain” by William Henderson

An Echo; A Stain is an excerpt from William Henderson’s in-progress memoir, House of Cards.


I’ve been grieving, not just for you, but for our when-not-if future. All of the plans and dreams I had had in my head are gone. I heard somewhere that you have to give up the life you planned to find the life that’s waiting for you. I know. Slogan. We are defined by how we grow, and we grow by giving up things, and by moving forward, even when moving hurts. I’ve become someone who talks in slogans.

I don’t always cry when I think I might. A song you introduced me to doesn’t make me cry, but a pair of socks you bought me does. A television show you and I watched together doesn’t make me cry, until one of the characters refuses to admit she’s a drug addict. I cry when I’m alone, or I cry when I’m with my children, Avery and Aurora, who I started to think of as your children. Aurora is too young to notice when I cry. Avery notices everything.

You sad?, he asks me.

I don’t know what to say but yes.

And he will come to me, if he isn’t already in my lap, and he will pick up my hand and look for places where I’m bleeding. He links sadness to physical pain.

Where?, he asks me.

My heart, I say.

Oh, he says.

He doesn’t know where the heart is. Sometimes I don’t know where my heart is.

Some days, I still want you to show up on my doorstep. You’re not going to show up on my doorstep, ring the bell, and tell me that you made a mistake. I just needed to think that for a while. I know that I don’t need anyone to show up on my doorstep.

Can a word have more than one meaning? Sure, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, but you’ll have to decide what one thing the word means more than it means anything else. When I was a child, I would repeat words to myself until they no longer meant what they meant. Sunshine. Water. Religion. Family. Love. I hear Avery doing this sometimes, or I project onto him what I did as a child. Some syllables are still difficult for him to say, and sometimes I think he knows the right way to say the word, but chooses to say it incorrectly. Mintes for minutes. Acovado for avocado. His voice is developing. Elongation and stretching does not occur solely in the womb. His feet, when he is in my lap, stretch past my knees.

Yours. Ours. Us. Words.

Rabbit. Not rabbit. Love. Not love. Just words.

Each word, a new beginning. And through my yoga practice, I have learned to see things for what they are, not what I wanted them to be.

I am not, and never was, rabbit, even though you called me rabbit for the duration of our relationship. I was right at the end of our first date when I called you White Rabbit. I was Alice. I followed you into your Wonderland. I met caterpillar, and the Tweedles, and the other creatures that inhabit your world. There were roses, red and white, and a mad tea-party. And when I had been expelled and locked out of Wonderland, I woke up as if from a dream, different.

I tell people I loved you, and they ask me why. And I run through some of the items on my list: bought pictures from a street vendor in New York; tried to get me to throw out my socks with holes in them. I say I didn’t have a choice but to love you. How can I deny how much I loved you? I promised you forever with both hands, and with both hands, you took forever off the table. You cleared the board. The pieces went flying. Off with my head.

Our hearts are muscles, and like any muscle, hearts become stronger after being torn down and breaking. There is a you-shaped hole in my heart, and no one will fill it. You told me I was your destination, and only now can I look back on our relationship and see it for what it was. I was emotionally battered. I felt I deserved the things you said to me and the things you did. You were never going to be my life partner. You were never going to be my husband. You were just going to be part of my path.

I tell men during first dates, or even before first dates, that I have two children, and most don’t care. They always wanted kids, they tell me, but didn’t know how it would happen. I had believed you when you told me that no one but you would take me and my children as is; you were wrong.

A man named Gabriel asks me one night if I am still in love with my ex-boyfriend. I say no. I am not lying. I kiss Gabriel, and I feel the burgeoning of excitement that accompanies first kisses. Dating and hope are muscles. So is love. Gabriel and I go on two dates. I turn down a third.

Another man, Robert, on our third date, suggests we eat at a restaurant inside The Liberty Hotel, which is located within the old Charles Street Jail. There are several courses. And cocktails. And wine. We talk about past relationships. I tell him about how you stopped having sex with me one night to give your friend weed; and how on those nights you got high with him, I felt like I disappeared; and I tell him about leaving the phone in your room and how we ended soon after.

I don’t get it, he says to me. Why would you stay with someone like that? Why would you enable someone like that? You were trying to build a future with someone who doesn’t even have much of a present.

I loved him, I say. I didn’t want to be someone else who hurt and disappointed him.

He blamed you for it all, didn’t he?

Yes, I say. He blamed me for everything.

You should aim higher, he says. I know he’s talking about himself. He’s not yet 30 and already he owns a business and two homes. He doesn’t want children, so I know he isn’t forever.

But I know why I stayed. I stayed because I loved you, and I stayed because I believed in our when-not-if future. And I stayed because I believed in you. And I stayed because I knew – because I know – that we could have had an amazing life together. And I stayed because you saw me. You thought I was beautiful. You loved me. You said yes when I asked you to marry me.

You also convinced me that you were as good as it was going to get.

I spend a month in an undefined way with Alonso – someone who has been on a list of the most stylish gay men in Boston for the past three years. I show him some pictures of me from a year ago. He doesn’t recognize me in them. He says that had I met him last year, he wouldn’t have given me the time of day. I tell him that I wouldn’t have been available last year. He sends me a text one morning to see if we’re having dinner later. I don’t respond to his text, or to his phone calls, or even to his Facebook e-mail. I understand why some of your relationships only last a few weeks. Sometimes a few weeks is long enough to realize that there is nothing there.

I am dating several men, but I don’t want to be anyone’s partner or boyfriend. I like being single. I like being alone. And I’m not alone. I have Holly, and I have the children we share. I don’t feel the need to settle for someone just to have someone there. That’s the difference between codependency and love. Judi was right not to tell me; I needed to learn this lesson on my own.

In time, I will not talk about my relationship with you. I will not share you with anyone else because I don’t have the right words to explain what we had.

Maybe there isn’t a hole in my heart. Maybe the chambers in my heart are really rooms, and one room is locked, and on that door is a brass plate with the words W. Rabbit on it. And all of the wrong words I have to explain what you and I once shared will be in this room, and these words will somehow capture the unvarnished nature of our impossible relationship, and the way in which a life, a story, can change. And I will lock these words behind a door, and I’ll keep the key in a box labeled Emotional Baggage: Do Not Open.

Alice’s journey through Wonderland and beyond the looking glass are stories of exploration, which, like relationships – like our relationship – are always bittersweet; there is an ending – and, if you’re lucky, transformation. There’s a reason making a map of Wonderland is impossible. No path, and every path, will get you where you want to go. You don’t even have to know where you’re going. You’ll end up there. Same holds true for love. You choose a path, and you see it through until it ends. Sometimes there are detours and dead ends; a side road tempts you into straying. Sometimes you lose your way, and even though you think the scenery where you’ve gotten is nice, your destination is still waiting, if you want to still end up there. Try to map love; see how lost you get. Or go ask Alice. She always knows the truth that is your heart.

I’ve been afraid of being who I am. I’ve been afraid of saying out loud who I am. But now I’ve fallen in love with all of my possibility. This falling has been sweet.

You know what else I’ve learned this year? To do the things that scare me. To live a life that isn’t scared. That love is something you have to be a bit brave about and a bit scared of, because it tests you. That you were worth the fall, even if I was alone when I knew it had been real.

And that’s why there is something compelling about believing that love can change us, and that we can change the people we love, if they let us. Everyone has had their heart broken, and it hurts. But love is neither battlefield nor game of chess. Love is something two people can share, in a land they create. And sometimes things fall apart because apart is the only way the two things can be. And sometimes things come together and stay together. Sometimes broken things can be mended. Sometimes.

I’ve been trying to find the right way to say goodbye to you, but I’ve also been trying to find the right way to say goodbye to who I’ve been. He didn’t die; he just untangled and rearranged. When something dies, most of us think that that’s it; it’s over. But I’ve discovered that that’s not true; things stick around. There are echoes of what and who has come before. The thing about love is you have to risk everything for it, sometimes more than once, because love doesn’t give you a choice.

More nonfiction at Used Furniture.

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