*Painting by Cris Motta

She had me pegged from the start, but I told her I was broken anyway to try to warn her off. I told her I didn’t think I could be fixed, that the best parts of me were missing and in a far off place and she’d never be able to find them. It didn’t work. She demurred, as she always did in the future when presented with the possibility we may not last, and with a pretty smile she told me I should get used to someone caring, someone looking for those pieces. I gave up trying to push her away – it was easy to do with someone so persistently optimistic and caring, and it was a new sensation for me. I ate it up like a starved man.

Sooner rather than later, we were sitting with one another on quiet summer nights on an old rusty trestle high above the river, our legs dangling from the rails. We watched as the still water beneath us melded with the stars above until we couldn’t discern where space ended and earth began. Fireflies darted playfully on the outskirts of our bridge universe, and we talked and laughed, listening to the trees whisper until the small hours of the morning when the sun woke to find us still there and we finally remembered there was a world outside our bridge. We reluctantly returned to our single lives each day, and for a time it seemed as if she were on the right path to finding all my missing pieces and that I was maybe the right person to be the caretaker of hers.

Yet, the real world has a way of tearing down tenuous ties that humans make for one another, and with great haste. I’d been broken for too long, and by too many people, and while she tirelessly tried to piece me together, I slowly detached myself from the warmth she exuded – shriveling from her light, her energy, and her love – burrowing down into the darkest recesses of my psyche. I became a different person, if you could even call me that. She began to grow tired, exhausted, as she patched up holes within me but new ones appeared. I began to seek solace in anyone who wasn’t her, with her caring heart and loving warmth. I exiled myself from her comfort; I didn’t believe I deserved it.

Sooner, rather than later…our tenuous ties were torn down by circumstance, and by my descent into the unfeeling mechanical creature I’d eventually become. We sat together in our cold apartment one fall morning surrounded by boxes full of our single lives, holding each other for maybe the last time. I was only dimly aware of the finality of the situation.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m doing this for us. We need to end this with some modicum of dignity. We can’t let it devolve further.”

She sobbed softly into my shoulder, and I could only pat her back with the cold mechanical motions of a machine. I felt her tears against my skin, and she begged me to stay, to try, to help her find those pieces of me. It was one last plea to save us in her own way, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less from her. I sighed, taking her by the shoulders – my fingers wrapped around the soft navy blue fabric of her sweater; it was one I liked, and even then I remembered the first time I’d seen her in it, but it was like I was sifting through another man’s memories. I looked deep into her eyes, my own eyes narrowed with purpose, all traces of love gone away. Hers were deep and brown and brimming with the bitter sadness of the outcome of her efforts, of the culmination of my betrayal. I’d let someone else find my broken parts, and I’d let someone else put me back together.

“It has to be this way,” I said softly. “I’m sorry.”

The apartment soon emptied of our belongings and any evidence we’d lived there together, sharing meals and gifts and moments, were scrubbed away with dollar store cleaners and dingy scrub brushes. I laid there on the floor in the last hours before handing off the keys, and I stared through a skylight we loved looking through back when we thought we’d had a chance.

I saw her one last time, a few months after we’d said our goodbyes. She was sitting with friends on a patch of grass in the city in the warm spring sun. She looked happy, full of life, and she was wearing that blue sweater I’d always liked. We made eye contact, and for a brief moment – the world around us disappeared and we were back on that trestle – the one covered in graffiti and trash – and we saw it for what it really was. She saw me for what I really was, what we had been. We stood at opposite ends of the tracks in that moment, the fireflies long since gone, the trees having given way to the finality of winter though they were budding with new hope, new life. I gave a slight smile, and I saw that her tears welled up again. She tossed her head back and laughed, wiping at her eyes with her hands. A sad smile played across her face, and I decided to take the image with me as I left to remind myself of the unfeeling machine I’d once been and never wanted to become again. The moment finished, I turned down a street nearby and lost myself in the crowd, another stranger in the city, remembering our beloved bridge as if I were sifting through the memories of another man, from another life.