But it said Believe above her bed-stand: bold letters strung with wire from the post, her breasts beneath a shirt I shared and she lifted to press her body to my back. Believe. It was her, no mistake: her in her skirt and sandals, her small feet; her in a plastic headband she wore once or twice one year. There was a candle wrapped in cellophane and tied with string. She told me to tell the teachers I teach with we’d meet them downtown in an hour or less. The day was warm but the sun was shaded in the street. She seemed sure of what she wanted.
She had a mirror along the floor which I watched so I could see us. Her breasts hung above my face and her hands held my shoulders while I turned my head to look. Her hair was short and she had postcards taped to the wall. These were the ones that she would not send and her grandmother and grandfather found a place beside the journals and the lotions on her nightstand. Her parents’ parents held their children against a pale backdrop, the yard that had grass and a shed and some trees. Her mother’s father had hair that was dark and stood in a pomp with waves. “Sexy,” I said once and meant it. He was a man like men should be and even I saw it. She certainly saw it and sized me up while she took pictures beneath her bed-sheets.
Her father built things with his hands. He did not give her the wrong attention as a child and so she said I should not do so either. “When we have a daughter,” she said, though we would never have a daughter, “you have to pay attention to her. But tell her she’s smart and a good person. Don’t tell her she’s cute. Don’t always affirm how she looks or she will think this is what matters.” We were on a schedule and running behind so I made my haircut quick. They shaved the back and the sides and thinned the top but kept the length and so my hair flared from all sides when I applied product. It was quick but the date was missed and the teachers I teach with ate their food without us I suppose. We walked and we did not keep talking, which told me the problem I predicted was there in spite of what she wanted, what I wanted.
She wrapped her legs behind my back and her arms around my neck and this is what I thought it meant: this is what love is. Love is windows in an apartment much like the apartment she lived in once when we were first in love. Love is making up the mattress when her hair was wet because she was going to work and I was going home which is far from where she is. Love is seeing a movie in early winter and finding her car again beneath some white lights, holding her hand before she makes turns at the wheel. Love is trading on stories from how we knew it was love and when, the moments that made it real, and the things we did together because, yes, this is love. She made me a quilt once and asked me to keep it when she gave back the things I stashed beneath her grandparents. I think I threw it away. She moved her lashes against my cheek and kissed me in threes.
We missed the dinner and the day was darker than before but still warm in the shade and she said less in her skirt and sandals and headband because I knew the problem was still there that was always there and then she was not there. Somehow, while I was walking on the street that was closed to through-traffic when I was a kid and still held my mother’s hand, she slipped off into shadows my mind makes. I was talking to myself, wondering how I might work it out out loud when I figured what to say and to ask about the problem that did not seem to bother her before she left. But I turned and she was nowhere. This is love.
–Story by Joel Kopplin
–Photography by Michela Riva