by Chris Bigelow

I open the door, and her bloodshot, weary eyes re-focus on my face. I haven’t seen her for three years. I don’t know why, we simply lost contact as our lives moved inexorably apart. But in high school and for some time after, you couldn’t pry us apart with a crowbar. We talked about everything, from science and history to our deepest, darkest secrets. I never hid anything from her, and she never hid anything from me. No limits existed for us, anything went. She was my best friend, the best I ever had. And then, after college, we faded from each other’s lives. I heard from her by the occasional letter, but never talked to or actually saw her. She told me she had found a boyfriend and in a later letter informed me they had move in together. She told me she had found happiness, and that made me think about how I live alone in this ratty apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan, working a crummy day job just trying to stay alive. But tonight she’s turned up here, at my door, the snow still melting into her hair, her eyes wide and desperate. I haven’t seen her for three years.

But I recognize her immediately and my face lights up as I exclaim her name. Then I see her for the first time. Cold, wet, ragged… Broken. Miserable. She smiles a tiny smile and then her face sort of twists and she says she needs a place to stay. I instantly offer her my home for as long as she needs it. She smiles crookedly and looks down at the floor as I bring her inside.

She takes a shower (I order her to, to warm her up) and after we have coffee and talk. We catch up on old times. I tell her that I broke up with my longtime girlfriend, Alice, about six months ago. I had dated Alice since high school, and my friend remembers her and comments on how she had once thought Alice and I would get married. I smile sadly, hiding the sting of regret that shoots through me, and shake my head. We were too different, I say. She wanted too much out of life. My friend smiles again, and I notice her black eye. I look away quickly, not saying anything. I ask her how her boyfriend is. She doesn’t say anything for a while, and then tells me she left him a month ago, after living with him for two years. I wonder where she’s been staying. She shrugs and says her mother’s. She hates her mother and more than once said she would never return to her house. I don’t comment.

So we talk about people we knew in school. We talk about the obsessive kid who used to follow us around. We talk about all of my friends, who she never really got along with. We mention in passing the crazy bisexual guy that used to annoy her with all his perverse tales. We talk about the irritating perky girl that nobody liked but everyone was nice to. We talk about how the obsessive guy and the perky girl got married last year (they printed it in the alumni newsletter), and how their kids will be abominations. We shoot the breeze, nothing deep. We laugh, but not too hard. The awkwardness and oddness of the situation prevents it. She says, with a big fake smile, how nice it is that we can just pick up where we left off all those years ago. I see her lying and wonder.

So I ask her why she came to me. We had always prided ourselves on directness. She smiles sadly and says she knew I would ask eventually. She explains, and I hear her voice catch slightly during the telling. He had hit her and so she left. I had figured as much but still it hurts me. I say her name softly, and say I’m sorry (well what can you say to that?). She shrugs. How long has this gone on? I ask. Just the once, she tells me. See, they were in the kitchen and he got mad at her for one reason or another, probably an unpaid bill or just sheer male aggression, so he punched her. And she left. She gazes proudly at the table. She tells me that she can’t stay with a man who hits her. She gingerly touches the mark under her eye. I notice that she has another bruise on her cheek, but I don’t say anything. I’m good at that, concealing what I feel and think. We both are.

We started finishing each other’s thoughts the day we met. I mean, we sort of knew each other before but just in passing. The obsessive kid introduced us and we talked for an hour, completely leaving him out. We had this connection that we likened to telepathy. We had gone through a lot of the same shit as kids, and we had a lot of the same outlooks on life. I don’t remember us ever arguing, because we never disagreed. When we moved away to college we wrote each other long, complicated letters full of the subtle mind games we both loved. I remember her strength most of all. She had it in abundant quantities. I knew of her delicate fragile nature, but she kept it hidden away, protected it with her tough skin. Nothing could hurt her. Not even me.

We watch TV for a while, commenting to each other about how inane the shows are. Someone makes a halfway suggestive joke, the audience roars with laughter. We’ve seen the pattern before. We find a hockey game to watch. I got her hooked on hockey back in high school My favorite team was the old Hartford Whalers. We actually saw a game together once, much to my parents’ displeasure. They never liked her. They thought I cheated on Alice with her.

Eventually we get bored and start talking, so I turn the sound off. She wonders if it’s really all right that she’s here, that she’s staying. She says she wouldn’t have come here if the situation wasn’t, well… Desperate? I fill in. Yeah. I wonder if her mother threw her out. She hesitates for a fraction of a second before nodding yes. She’s lying to me. I used to catch her in these kinds of lies all the time. But I’m not as bold as I once was, so again I say nothing. My mind begins piecing the fragments together, though. I try not to dwell on it as we talk about old times some more, and then about my old girlfriend (which is painful, but it’s something to talk about), but I do anyway. I can’t help it. I hate seeing her like this. She’s lost a lot of what I loved about her. Her strength, her will, her spirit. All exhausted. I can tell, even though she puts on a damn near convincing show, I can still still see through her. No, I just need a place to stay for a few days, then I’m going to get back on my feet. Just a few days. Really. I’m fine.

When I was a senior in high school and she was a freshman in college, she came down to the school to see me for a day. We both graduated from this big New England prep school that we loathed but had attended anyway because, despite its flaws, it was still a damn sight better than the public schools. It was a Saturday. We talked for a while, wandering around campus and then driving to McDonalds’ for some food. When we returned to campus I started pouring my guts out to her about some awful thing I had done with Alice a few months before. She reassured me, which is an understatement. She said I was the most kind, caring person she’d ever met, and several other things that almost reduced me to tears. I had never, ever heard such things said about me by sincere lips. Right then, I felt what I wished I felt for Alice some days, what I so feared feeling for her, but there it sat. Clear. Strong. Love. I told her, and she just sort of stared at me for a minute. I meant it. She meant it when she said it back to me a second later. But I had to give it a condition. I said I didn’t, couldn’t love her like I loved Alice. This was different; non-sexual. Like friends love each other, you know? Of course, she said. I understand. I feel the same way. She gathered me into her arms then, and we sat there holding each other forever, trembling with raw, fresh, unpredictable emotion. At that moment, I forgot about Alice.

It’s getting late and she wants to sleep. I have a chair that folds out into a twin bed so I put a sheet and a comforter on it for her. I go into the bathroom for a few minutes, when I emerge she’s sitting on the bed in her underwear, her face buried in her hands. She’s not crying, but she’s close. I ask what’s wrong. She looks up and tells me how nice I am to her. I sigh and ask where she’s really been for the last few weeks. She looks away and mumbles how she wishes she could act better. I hand her a robe I found in the bathroom that’s pretty clean, she pulls it on. She tells me she’s lived on the streets, that she couldn’t go home and she’s been trying to find me for two weeks. She tells me that she has no friends left to stay with, so she walked from where she lived with her boyfriend to the city. He lives in Connecticut. It’s winter, and cold as all hell. She tries to reassure me, saying she stayed in shelters and churches, but I’m not happy and it shows. She tells me she’s not sick. She tells me she’s feeling fine, actually. She says it wasn’t so bad. I nod and say good night to her, not believing but not saying anything.

So I leave her and retire to my room, where I take my mind off of things by reading a book. At one in the morning, I finally turn out my light and try to sleep. I listen for her breathing, but she’s too far away and I worry instead. I wonder if she snores. I think of her out on the streets for that month, out in the cold, and I shiver. It must have cost her something terrible to get here. Why had she travelled through cold and snow, on foot all the way from Fairfield, Connecticut to New York, just to find me? Maybe I’m still the only person she trusts. Maybe she figured I would shelter her when no one else would. We may not have seen each other in three years but that remains, I suppose. She knows I’ll shelter her. I’m a safe haven. Funny, I never really feel safe in this place. I don’t exactly live in the best neighborhood, but I know that’s not the issue.

I hear a noise, and automatically think burglar or worse. I think of her asleep on the chair. What would a random intruder do to her? I sit up in bed, determined to do something. Before, I would have been confident that she could take care of herself. Now I’m not so sure. Time and brutaility have changed her. My door opens and a figure walks in, but she’s no intruder. Her eyes, reflected in the dull yellow streetlight filtering through the window, overflow with a need I can’t begin to express. She says she doesn’t want to spend any more time alone. She was wondering-? I reach for her gently, and guide her into the bed. She suddenly butts her head against my chest and holds me tightly. I stroke her hair for a while. She keeps saying it was awful, it was awful, over and over again. It was so cold. I was so scared. He was so awful, I didn’t think I would get through it.

I love you.

Save me.

I had to save myself from her. Our relationship started leaning more and more towards what Alice and I had, not surprisingly. We had become more than just friends. She once asked if I would kiss her, just out of curiousity, and I did. After that we kissed more and more often, and eventually I realized that when my lips touched hers I felt the same things I felt when I kissed Alice. We never talked anymore, we just held each other and kissed, trying in vain to recapture what we had discovered that first time. We rationalized that the first time was so strong only because of all the pent-up emotion we released into it, but still.

We only slept together once. One time, my parents had gone to see my ailing grandmother, leaving me at home alone. I stole the car and headed up to her college in Massachussetts; a two-hour drive but worth it. I spent the night in her room, holding on to her. We didn’t do anything really sexual, just pressed against each other; although the temptation was there to go further we never really got around to it.

That night I discovered that I loved her more than I ever loved Alice, and that scared me. You see, I thought Alice and I would get married someday. I thought the gods had arranged for us to be together for the rest of our lives, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that. The next day, I finally made a decision, and chose Alice instead of the fantastic, powerful love I had felt that night. All for the sake of a marriage that lay so far in the future I couldn’t even begin to concieve of it. I hated having to break the news, but she accepted it. She understood. She always understood.

My best friend stayed strong throughout it, and there were times after that her strength propped me up when I needed it. She always had that quality in her. I can take care of myself, she always said. When she turned up at my doorstep I knew she had lost that, and where a beautiful, capable woman had once stood sat a trembling little girl.

She lies in my arms, her breathing even and light. I stay awake, wondering. She shifts and I find myself confronted by her luminous eyes. Can’t sleep? she asks with a smile. There is so much sadness in her smiles that they make me want to cry. I can’t either, she says.

What did he do to you, I wonder aloud. What did he do to steal away the strong, independent person I knew? Her face twists again and she starts to cry. I’ve never seen her cry. I don’t think she ever did, during all the time I knew her in high school. Not once. But now she sobs and her tears ran down my chest as she tries to hide it from me. I run a hand over her cheek, drying it, waiting for her to regain control. I ask if he had hit her more than once. She nods. I ask if he’d been doing this to her for as long as she’d lived with him. She shakes her head. Before that, she says. Way before.

I wonder why she stayed with him so long. She tells me a couple of things, like she was afraid to leave him because she thought she’d never have another shot at marriage or at what she wanted most, children. She says the thought of being alone again terrified her, and, above all else she feared him. But she says she loved him and needed him.

But you finally left, I say. She nods and I see a bit of her old fire, not yet quashed by the pain and terror. I tell her that she can stay with me for as long as she wants. I tell her she’s always welcome with me, that I’ll never hurt her.

I tell her that I want her to stay. She settles back into my embrace and sleeps. I mean what I say. I won’t hurt her because I can’t. I feel nothing but hatred and anger for her boyfriend, the ogre who stole my beauty’s soul away. I know why she came here, she came to find herself again. We once said that we were as alike as two people could get without being the same. Being together was like being alone, we used to say, and, coming from two career loners, we meant it as quite a complement. It still held true. She came to see me so she could regain some of her strength. I have precious little to give, but I’ll share it with her. I can’t not. I fall asleep listening to her heartbeat thud through my chest.

Alice and I had loved each other, at least I’m pretty sure we did at some point. Ours was one of those crazy first-time high school romances that for some reason went a lot farther than it ought to have. We had known each other for only a few weeks when we started going out, and so our entire relationship had built up within the confines of romantic love. She had all sorts of grand delusions of flowers and proms and little candy hearts and teddy bears; the stuff ‘real’ romance consisted of. I never quite bought into all of that, an outlook which generated not a little bit of friction with her.

She hauled me up out of the most depressing period of my life. I wandered around for the first year or so of high school wearing lots of black and without a happy thought. I had what self-help books call “low self-esteem”, which is a fancy way of saying I loathed myself and my life. After I met her and realized that she needed me just as much as I neeeded her, I put on a white shirt for the first time in years. I was a budding writer/poet at the time, so the symbolism didn’t escape me. For a while she made me feel like the luckiest man in the world. She had a way of making me happy when we spent time together. I thought nothing better could exist, until my friend came along one-and-a-half years into it, and showed me love and closeness like I’ve never felt before or since. With Alice, the sex may have been great, but in other areas she lacked sadly.

But I loved her. We said often that someday we’d be married; both in high school and when we met up years later after graduation. Losing her hurt. She said she wanted more from life than I could give. She wanted a husband with a steady job (I work in a bookstore for peanuts) and a nice house in her rural hometown. For a few months I just sat around pining for her, missing her touch and her constant companionship. Until my friend showed up, I thought I’d do anything to have her back. Now, I’m not so sure. It’s the same old question from high school; which one? But this time I don’t think either of them would accept if chosen. The first, Alice, is gone, away with someone else. And as for the other…

It’s morning. She’s up already, making some sort of breakfast, which surprises me. She never seemed like the hausfrau type, before. She’s battling the stove with a spatula when I get to the kitchen. A large black ant, she explains, had crept onto the toast. Did I still want the piece? She smiles. I smile. We stare into each other’s eyes for a while and then she looks away. Thank you, she says. For what? I wonder. For existing, she replies. I shrug.

I wonder aloud if she’ll ever go back. She says she won’t. I tell her to say it again, and she does, but I don’t believe her. She wants to go back. She needs to see him again. She wants the kind of love and affection she thinks only he can give her. She wants children. I stare at her. So who do you want more, yourself or an idea? I ask.

She turns off the oven, throws away the toast, and sits down to think.

A couple of days pass and she tells me she’s going back. She says she really does love him and her life isn’t so bad, she just needed some time away. Some time alone. I don’t like this and tell her so, but she wants to go back anyway. She says she has to face up, she can’t keep running away forever. I think that she had some pretty damn good reasons to run away but again I say nothing. What can I say? I mean, I could remind her of what she said that night, but she’d probably just go quiet again. She doesn’t want to talk about that night.

So on a rainy Sunday we pack ourselves into my beat-up old Mazda and drive up to Connecticut. He lives in Fairfield, in this little house on a halfway-pleasant street. We don’t talk during the car ride up, and all I say to her as she gets out is to call me. Let me know if things are all right. She nods, squares her shoulders and walks up to the house. I sit in the car for a few minutes and then drive away, feeling more helpless than ever.

I go to a bar and nurse a beer while watching a hockey game. Eventually the barkeeper implies that I ought to either buy another beer or leave. So I leave, and drive around Fairfield and whatever other towns I can find for a while. I don’t want to go home. I know that everywhere I look I’ll see reminders of the past few days. She had regained bits and pieces of herself, I had begun to see her re-emerge from her shell. I have fallen in love with her again. I know that he’ll hurt her again. I know this type of man. I can’t stand the thought of him hurting her. What’s worse, I can’t stand the thought that she won’t fight back. She always used to fight back. He can break her. I can heal her. She can make me whole.

I should not have let her go.

I drive back to New York and sit around for a while. I think about charging back up to Fairfield, grabbing her and spiriting her away to safety. But I know that won’t work. She hates knights in shining armor, and I know she’ll just laugh or hate me and eventually end up back with him anyway. So I sit on my bed and cry for her.

I go to work the next morning. My boss is in a bad mood and tells me that I need to reshelf the entire Sociology section in the former Gardening section, which he’s moving to where all the books about sex are now. I start working and find a book about battered women. I stare at it for a while until my boss comes over and tells me to read on my own time or else. I know he won’t fire me. I’ve been here longer than he has. He needs my help to run this place. But I obey anyway and shelve.

I walk in the park. I walk down 5th Avenue, the whole way, and then turn around and go back to the park where I catch the subway home. It’s late again. I get home intact and check the answering machine, hoping she’s called. She hasn’t. My mother has, wondering where I’ve been and telling me that she’s probably going up to visit my grandmother next week, would I like to come? I erase the message.

It’s three in the morning and I’m suddenly wide awake. The phone is ringing. I run to get it, not bothering to put my clothes on. When I answer it, not daring to hope, all I hear is a dial tone.

I write her a letter. I can’t help it, I have to do something. I tell her that she needs to get out of that relationship, it’s killing her, eroding her personality, can’t she see that? I tell her I still love her, that I always will. I tell her to trust me. I ask her to at least call me. I flip a coin to decide whether or not I should send it off. ‘No’ wins but I send it off anyway.

Alice calls. This shocks me, I’m not prepared for it and stammer senselessly into the phone for the first few seconds. She says she wants to see me. She says she’s not happy with her new boyfriend. She says she wants to come back. I had dreamed of this very moment countless times, I had planned to make her feel really guilty for leaving me and string her along, giving in to her pleading eventually but with a certain healthy amount of reservation, but I just say yes instead. We set up a date. She likes dates, with fancy food and nice clothes. I hate them, but I’m hardly in a position to object.

So I see Alice a few nights later. She hasn’t changed. She laughs and giggles, she makes overly cute remarks. Alice has never really grown up. I had hoped that going off to college and eventually fending for herself in the ‘real world’ would accomplish this, but for some reason she’s stayed like this. A child in so many ways, her shortcomings more accented with age. I feel sorry for her. Sometimes.

Maybe things have changed. I try to coerce her into a serious conversation, talking about children and the future. I make a remark about an idea I have for a novel, and she changes the subject. She always does. It’s not that she’s not interested, she just changes the subject a lot. So I change it back. She changes it again.

I get frustrated and start to say something direct. But I bite my tongue. What, she asks, was I going to say? I shake my head and tell her I just had something in my throat, ignore me. So she talks about her parents.

I picture that house in Fairfield. I picture what that pathetic excuse for a man must look like, what he must do to her. I see the bruises again, I wince.

Alice talks about her friends and tells me this really funny story about one of them. I laugh, but not too loudly.

I feel her tears soak through my shirt. I feel her head butt against my chest. I hear her telling me how horrible it was, how awful he was, how she couldn’t live that way anymore.

Alice says I look distant. Alice asks if I’m all right. I ask her if she really, really wants me back. She says she thinks she does and wonders if I want her back too. I shrug. I don’t know, I say.

I see my friend, my love, walk up to that house. I remember Alice leaving. I excuse myself for a second, saying I’ll be right back, don’t worry. I enter a bathroom and pull out a weathered old bicentennial quarter.

Now you might think that this decision would take me months, even years to sort through and resolve. It did before. But not tonight. Tonight I do what I should have done years ago: I flip a coin. Heads, and I take Alice home tonight. Tails, and I drive to Fairfield.

It’s heads. I stare at it on the back of my hand and feel my heart break. I blink. Understanding rushes in, and I smile softly.

After I drop a teary Alice off at the friend’s house where she had dropped her suitcase, I tear off northeast towards New England. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there, but one way or another I’m bringing her home with me. I’ll tell her, You don’t have to be afraid anymore. Not with me. I love you. I can’t stand the thought of you here. If you want love and affection, I can give it to you. If you want children, I’ll raise them with you. If you want a husband, I will wed you.

I make decisions with coins, true. I flip a coin and see how I feel. The decision has just been made. Do I like it, or hate it? It’s a good way to sort through all the crap and get right down to the real issue; did I want the boring, unfulfilling but proven-to-work relationship, or the closeness and wonderful comfort of a relationship that might never be? But I think it will be. I know my friend well enough. My heart sings. I feel like I’m free for the first time in years. I feel the night scream its music around me, filling me with energy, power, resolve… I smile, and then I grin, pounding the steering wheel in time to the radio. Headlights whiz by, streaking gashes of white light, blinding, rushing, blazing like twin suns then gone, past.