I just figured out love. What I mean is, I just found it. Not in real life. God knows I don’t ask that much. But still, love. That huge thing men like me spend their whole lives wondering over. Well maybe not men like me. But lots of people.
And who would have figured? Me sitting there at Dawson Community College, looking out the windows at the train tracks down the hill. It was just dark—one of those early spring sunsets that makes you want to get out and do something. Tina was off God knows where by that hour of the evening. The street lights above the train yard were on and the coal was gleaming in the boxcars below. Like jewels, I thought. I was feeling real romantic, see. We had to read Wuthering Heights for class that day and I had actually read it. Most times, stocking nights like I do at the Food Lion, I don’t get a chance to do homework. Especially for a class like humanistic Tradition, which is required English—king of out of my field. But this book I read. And it blew me apart.
Like I say, I was sitting there feeling sort of lousy about school and Tina and life and everything. Thinking how we moved in together like a couple of crazy fool kids almost two years ago now—how Tina wanted to get away from her lunatic mother and I wanted a place of my own and someone to talk to and sex. And how I got all these things now, on occasion, and I’m still not a damned sight better for it and neither is Tina. I was thinking all these things—like looking back down a mountain you’ve hiked up, just to see how hard the climb was and how in God’s name you ever managed it.
And then it was Dr. Kaufman’s voice coming in. He’d been lecturing nearly a half hour already, but I just tuned in because he’d stopped talking about storms on the moors as symbol and started talking about love.
“Heathcliff and Cathy share a passion,” he said. “A brutal, dangerous obsession that some critics have likened to sadomasochism. I personally think that’s a bit much. What do you think, Chelsea?”
This was the girl in the front row. The one with a pinched looking face. “I think Heathcliff is a big old animal,” Chelsea said. “Reminds me of my ex-husband.” Then she crossed her arms in front of her, like that was all there was to say.
I don’t know much about literature. This is like the first real book I’ve ever read. But it seemed there was more to it than that.
The problem is, I can’t speak up in class. This is just my first year of college, even though I’m almost thirty now. I’ve hardly said a word in here all semester so people would probably have attacks if I piped up with something now. But I’ve always been like this. Ever since high school when they signed me up for some crazy-ass play and just before my cue, I threw up right on the costume girl’s foot. A thing like that can keep you from speaking up ever again.
So I was thinking how Chelsea whoever had missed the point and how I wished I could say something. But then Dr. Kaufman called on this other guy anyway and so I turned back to the window and the coal shining like jewels in the train yard.
Tina has a pair of earrings made out of coal. I bought them as a souvenir last summer, when we thought we were finally moving out of West Virginia. But one thing and another came and here we are still, not married yet either, like Tina wanted to be by now. Only thing different is I’m trying to get a degree in computers so maybe one day we can beat hell out of this place. More has changed, though, I know. Tina never talks about getting married anymore. She hasn’t worn those earrings in a long, long time.
She’s probably out with Kay somewhere, is what I was thinking. At happy hour at the Holiday Inn. Just last night she was going out when I came in. She was wearing that new sweater she bought—the tight one with all the sparkly sequins—and she lifted her chin like she does and put her hand to her hip and said, “How do I look?” All I could do was brush past her through the door and say, “Honey, I just wouldn’t know.”
So anyway, back to lit class. I got tired of looking out the window and I turned back around and cracked open the book. The first line that hit my eye was the one where Cathy says she loves Heathcliff because “He is more myself than I am.”
That’s when I started thinking about love and everything. How my heart had been thumping hard lying in bed alone the night before, reading about something so fierce the world could go fuck itself because two people had each other forever. Lying there reading this while I could still smell Tina’s shampoo on the pillow. I started thinking how, back at the first, she used to call me up at three in the morning, send me cards, bake me pies. She used to lay her head against me a certain way when we danced. Used to sit so close in the truck I could hardly shift gears. There were girls before her. But none of them touched me the way Tina did, her fingers gamey and a little too soft on my spine. The way she moved, easy, like water. None of them got that look in their eyes like I’ve caught on her a few times. That look was so long ago now, though, I don’t remember it.
Tina, I was thinking, would never read this book, wouldn’t have the patience or even understand it. This isn’t the thing that made me sad, though. The thing that made me sad was thinking how much she might understand already, without reading it. Dangerous love, maybe. But not even Tina would say, “He is more myself than I am.” Not even Tina would come and scratch at my window when she was already dead and buried.
Dr. Kaufman turned back from the board then. He looked at me with a question on his face, but he was on another subject now. He asked something about rising and falling action and then he said, “James?”
I don’t know what came over me then. It was just that moment, I guess. When everything I had seemed to be falling away and everything I didn’t was right there—dangling in front of me like some fancy, glittery gift I knew wouldn’t ever be mine.
I cleared my throat and then it just came out. “I’ll never be loved like that,” I said.
It got real quiet. Then everyone stared, of course. Old Chelsea Pucker Face turned all the way around in her desk and screwed up her mouth so tight it must’ve hurt. Dr. Kaufman’s hand fluttered at his tie and then everyone looked to him to see what he’d say to this one. But his face just got kind of dreamy and he nodded a little and shoved his hands in his pockets, looking out the window at the train yard and the cars heaped high with coal.
That’s when I knew I’d figured it out. Knew I was right about it. But it’s no real joy, let me tell you. It’s no picnic finding love, and then having to go on still, wishing you never did.
Cathy Cruise’s fiction has appeared in journals such as Blue Mesa Review, New Virginia Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her awards include a 2001 Washington Independent Writers Award for Short Fiction, an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s 2014 Family Matters contest, and second place in New Rivers Press’s American Fiction series, Volume 14. Cruise runs the blog, Write Despite, with friend and fellow writer Karen Guzman. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, is forthcoming in 2016. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.