The world was awash in grey, grey light, and only the rain was watching. It lightly dabbed at the gravelly scree on the wet tar road, shining everything into granite: the occasional buggy creeping by, the fractured sidewalk, and a man’s shoes which stood, undecided, beneath the cover of a bus stop. They were black cap-toed derbies, the cheap kind only a lower-middle income like the man’s own could afford. The glossed veneer was cracked and his toes were drawn together like shivering children.
Millie had bought them for him. Millie, Millie. Millie with limp, mousy hair and a drooping face. Millie with an apron around her waist and a baby boy in her arms. Millie, his unswerving wife. A woman of middle-age who couldn’t understand melancholy or the perverse pleasure that accompanies pain, who spoke in the lilting cadences of the content, and who had married Henry, six years and two frown lines earlier, for his grey, grey eyes.
Standing at an altar with him in a burial shroud-white dress, Millie didn’t know then that Henry’s heart didn’t beat with love, or really anything at all besides the bluish blood that crept along his veins. It was buried deep in a bitter sleep, pumping its liquid breath in and out and in and out until that fateful day when he met She.
She. To Henry, She was love and romance and recognition, a name and a place and a time gone too fast. She was beauty and wine-dark hair. She was like a tern, swaying with the sky and smelling of sea air.
She was sitting on a bench in the local park, a sanctuary of trees, when Henry met her. Her wine-dark locks were dancing with the cypresses. She wasn’t doing anything in particular, just sitting. She did that often. Sit. Henry had walked over to her, his feet undecided even then, and sat down, too. She looked up at him with her grey, grey eyes and whispered, “Do you know, I think you are wearing somebody else’s shoes. Those are the shoes of a confident man.”
And he had looked down at his shoes, brown boots, and saw through them to the young man’s hesitant feet inside, the same feet that She had guessed to be there. “I think you’re right,” he had whispered back. And that was that. That was how it had started, the gilded romance with She.
And then the bus crash. And that was that. That was how it had ended with She.
Now he would never wake up in the morning and see Love looking back at him. Now he would never wake up in the morning and be sure he had ever seen Love looking back at him.
For years after She, Henry had wandered about his small city, charting its margins with his footsteps, but never venturing beyond them. He had often flipped through travel guides at the public library, his eyes devouring Paris, his tongue tasting Rome, his fingers caressing London. He walked out of the library after these trips abroad, as he liked to think them, in an eager daze, hungrily slinking to the drugstore to buy lottery tickets that would pay for his exotic travel whims, someday. Someday. His lucky number was 1117, or November 17th, the day he met She.
Soon, Henry found himself on the cusp of middle-age, alone, fourteen pounds heavier with burden, and completely unaware of how he had ended up where he was. He worked as an accountant, hunched over his computer, nameless to his colleagues, and just another paycheck to his boss. The only reason he had survived all the personnel and budget cuts at his company was that once he had sent his boss’s secretary a get-well-soon card when she came down with the flu.
That was about the same time he had met Millie. Millie was also an accountant at the same firm. Their meeting wasn’t quite so quaint as when he met She, but comparing these two women would be like putting an ant next to a butterfly: they weren’t even the same species. And he happened to be the man these two women loved. Anyhow.
Millie had said hello to him one morning, her brown, brown eyes shy, eight years after November 17th, and two years later they were married. Henry never loved Millie like he loved She; in fact, he had never loved her at all. Instead, he loved the idea of Millie. He had loved the comfort and stability marriage had offered. He imagined their life together would be like the nicely made bed they had slept in their first night as husband and wife. Clean and sturdy.
Only when his son came, wailing and screaming like reality, did Henry realize the illusion that was his married life with Millie. He had fooled himself into thinking that his new wife, his newly repainted kitchen, and the doting jealousy his wife’s friends wore in his house were happiness. His lottery ticket sprees and travel plans had flickered out with his bachelor days, just as swiftly as youth had passed him by.
Frustrated, Henry wished sometimes that he could jump back on that train, back on to Life, that great thing everyone else sighed about with a film of nostalgia painted over their eyes. Instead, one day he was lost and alone, the next, he was lost, alone, and married. The greyness in his grey, grey eyes was now the grey of a rainy day, no longer the silver fire he used to see reflected in She’s brazen smiles.
But life went on, apathetic to Henry’s existential crises and indifferent to his pathetic thoughts of wishes unfulfilled. For a while, Henry had tried medications to jolt him from his confused stupor, but the thought that he needed help depressed him even more. So Henry stopped. And Henry attached blinders to his head so he would never catch a lethal glimpse of the stooping man who mirrored him on glass windows and in clear puddles.
And here he was. At the bus stop. Henry, Henry. With grey, grey eyes in a grey, grey world. It was Monday, a skeleton of a day: all that’s leftover from the carnage of the weekend. It was 7 am, like always, and Henry was waiting for Bus 43, headed westward to his grey, grey office. Like unwilling slugs, he shuffled his shoes tiredly. He wanted somebody to stop him. To march right up to him and yell his name, to recognize him, Henry. He wanted somebody to shake some color into his grey, grey world like She had.
But nobody stopped him. Nobody marched up to him and yelled his name and recognized him, Henry, or shook any color at all into his grey, grey world. Instead, the rain fell and the cars slid by and his watched ticked from 7:01 to 7:02 and on and on and on… When would time stop? Henry thought about this for a while, tumbling it around in his washing machine of a mind: insert a thought and watch it spin in circles.
Of course, Henry already knew the answer to this question. He knew the answer to all these types of questions. It was She, even if it didn’t make sense. She was like that; the ribbon he could always turn to, to tie things up. But since her grisly desertion of him and all things living, since the day he saw her limbs cracked by Fate’s hands, She made him writhe in a suffocating guilt. How like her to haunt him even now.
It was the guilt of knowing he had settled for Millie and resigned the both of them to a dull life of mornings and nights passing unnoticed and insignificant beneath the great, big sky. The shame that Millie loved him, but he loved She. The guilt that he had married Millie anyway. The shame that he wrapped himself in pity and hid behind his guilt like prison bars, trapped, but safe. Safe and hidden in his shame.
Henry carried this rotten tumble of agony around every day, to the bus stop every morning, just like this morning. He’d always thought that maybe he’d be end up a somebody. But now he was just him. Henry, Henry. A plain man with a grimace plastered permanently across his sagging face.
He wasn’t the man people whispered about in malice or adoration. He wasn’t the man people whispered about at all. He wasn’t bad. He just wasn’t good, either. And this nagged at Henry every morning like the rain on his neck as he surveyed the bleak road and the minivans slithering by…
Reminiscing, he counted the red cars. That was She’s favorite color. “Scarlet!” She would cry, pointing to a red Volkswagen whizzing past. “Crimson!” at a red pick-up truck. He saw three red cars this morning. And what was this?
A glimmer of wine-dark flame caught his eye. It was a lustrous braid attached to a lithe tern of woman bending over to pick up a grey, grey pebble on the sidewalk. She was only a yard away from him, waiting for the bus, too, he presumed. She stayed squatting, examining the slate pebble with grey, grey eyes, the grey of a silver forest fire.
Henry couldn’t help but stare, the woman so resembled She, almost to perfection. He wondered if her voice could also out-sing the birds and if her words could also outshine the lamenting of the sea. Her nimble fingers turned the pebble over and over. Her business attire was tailored perfectly, and Henry pondered briefly if calloused hands corrupted by time like his own had ever run over her fragile body, through her wine-dark hair.
Henry tore his eyes away from this woman, this mirage, thirsty to take in her consuming temptation, her consuming fright, but more tortured that he could forget about Millie at the sight of a burnished braid. He ripped his head to the side. In a blur, from afar, he watched his bus, Bus 43, pull swiftly up to the stop where he was standing and skid out of control on the slippery road.
He watched the ghost, She, rear back in fright and drop that perfectly grey, grey pebble. He watched her fall into the road. Funny that she should do so, so gracefully.
Amid the confusion, he watched himself fling his worn body onto the road and push the woman, She, whoever’s pernicious Fury she was, to the side, hoping to catch the brunt of the bus’s force on himself.
This time, he wouldn’t let the bus get She.
His body crumpled beneath gravity’s weight as he landed in front of the veering bus. He hoped wildly he had pushed She far enough into safety’s grasp, but he couldn’t be sure. He would never be sure.
He never was sure either if it was the weight of the bus that crushed the life out of him or the weight of the guilt that now his wife and son were alone and he had left them and the world for a phantom of the love he didn’t deserve. Was she ever there? Or if it was the crushing melancholy that killed him, the dissatisfaction with the ugly plainness of his life. But either which way, he died.
The world was awash with grey, grey light when Henry left it, and only the rain was watching.
Nathalie M is a ninth grader from Seattle and dark chocolate enthusiast. She loves to read, watch old movies, and play with her dogs.