Heather Woodward

The shopping center turns with the predictable rhythm of busy people living their busy lives, just like it does every time he comes here. It seems the same children giggle and whine, trapped in their steel frame carts, while their stressed-out mothers stuff groceries into the back of their financed cars.

He watches the same college students huddle together at the chain burger joint stationed at the far corner of the square, squished between a trendy smoothie bar and a greasy Hawaiian BBQ restaurant. They eat French fries with ranch dressing, sip diet sodas from extra large plastic cups, and banter on about the latest horror movie in the animated conversation that only comes from a heady mixture of caffeine and youth.

He leans back in his favorite chair outside the local coffee shop, legs crossed at the ankle, a paperback splayed across his knee, and a cigarette in his right hand, which dangles over the edge of the plastic chair. He reads fervently, every now and then absent-mindedly grabbing the lukewarm triple latte from the edge of the table or taking a drag from his cigarette. When he reaches the butt, he pulls at another from the pack and lights it with a flick of his disposable lighter, never looking up from his book.

From afar he blends in—another one of the nine-to-fivers enjoying the elusive sunny-weekend weather that usually only shows itself during business hours. But only he knows that he hides in this epicenter of the mundane from something not quite tangible. Something he can’t pinch between his fingers, like the comforting roundness of rolled paper and tobacco. He only knows that it comes from the too-quiet stillness in his apartment. The remnants of something bigger smeared on every surface of every room, tainting it with its… nothingness… no… emptiness. He feels the emptiness all around him like a hole that won’t fill up because it has no sides. Just a seamless black void that breathes in the spaces where his thoughts used to be.

But here, outside in this small shopping center, with life thriving all around him, he can concentrate on the book in front of him. He can take a few drags of his cigarette, filling those infiltrated spaces with the slightly euphoric haze of nicotine. Eventually, he is only a passerby in a sea of monotony. Not a focal point, but a piece of a bigger puzzle. Here he can disappear, and forget and blend.

The only distractions come when he hears the out-of-place squawk of a seagull begging or the rumble of a muscle car amongst the purr of minivans or the sound of her laugh affronting the predictable scenery. He jerks up, and looks around for where the sound might have come from, but he doesn’t see her. He wonders if finally the memories have taken over, seeping into his well-confined reality. He takes a sip of his latte and tries again to concentrate on the book in his lap. But now, the missing happens, a reflex he hasn’t quite figured out how to stuff down into the recesses of his forgetting.

The missing her is tricky, it has a life of its own and clings to his skin like a leech. He misses the way she spilled things down the front of her shirt, the way she tripped over the carpet and bumped into walls. Small things that filled up the emptiness, laughable things that he found… sweet. She was clumsy and messy and awkward. Chaos swirled at her feet like dust devils. Yet, these days, he finds himself looking for her chaos in everything, just to remember how it felt to hate her. How it felt to feel.

The hating her was much like the loving her. It came upon him without warning like a giant ocean wave crashing into his sensibility. Loving her was unnerving and unpredictable. It had thorny roots that tangled him up and kept him distracted. Hating her was easier. It was clear and precise without circular patterns of reasoning that sometimes went nowhere. It had logic.

But without her, he is static. Without her, he is just a book, and a latte, and a pack of cigarettes.

He hears her laugh again, this time closer. Then she’s standing in front of him. Her back is turned to him, unaware that she is so close he can smell the gardenia perfume on her pulse points. Her head is down, and she’s biting her lip in that insecure way that makes him want to scoop her up and wrap his arms around her, to tell her that everything is going to be okay. She’s rifling through her overstuffed purse for something, probably her keys.

He thinks he hears a tear somewhere near his lungs, and then the bubbling of blood oozing from the wound. His hand wants to move instinctively to his chest to stop this new bleeding, but he takes a long drag from his cigarette instead, and focuses on an unkempt strand of her hair hanging just over her shoulder.

Does he acknowledge her?

He doesn’t know, but much to his dismay, he can’t help but linger over her solid frame. The black silky material of her skirt glides over the slight hourglass of her hips, over the softness of her thighs. The tight pull of her red shirt stretches over her breasts.

He is suddenly struck by the vision of her taut nipples pressed against the inside of his palm. The sweet taste of her mouth entangled on his tongue, the saltiness of her skin, the smell of her hair. The way her gaspy moans reverberated on the slick skin of his shoulder when he moved inside of her, the way she chanted his name like a sonnet.

He remembers this so clearly that he drops his book with a loud thud. She flinches and turns. She grabs the book from the ground, hands it to him, and then smiles.

He smiles back with a tight grin, not knowing how to let the muscles in his jaw relax or the tension in his shoulders dissipate. Suddenly he is a stiff board of wood floating against a current of animosity. She wraps her arms around him in a genuine hug and speaks sincerely about “missing him” and “it’s been too long,” but later, he won’t remember what exactly she said, only the movement of her painted mouth and the searing burn of her fingertips on his back.

She sits down nonchalantly, unaware of the snake-like wriggling in the pit of his stomach. He slides another cigarette from its pack and lights the new one with the old cigarette that hasn’t quite burned down. His hands shake a little as he inhales deeply, but she won’t notice the tremor because she’s too busy talking.

“How are you doing? What have you been up to?”

He doesn’t know the answer to this. What has he been doing?


And thinking; it doesn’t stop. The dissection, the analyzing, the grinding, until there’s nothing left but a pile of dust and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. The numbers on the liquid clock tick away, ascending into early morning. He finds himself still awake at 5 a.m. eating cinnamon rolls and playing Dig Dug.

“Just the usual,” he manages to say with an easy drawl that hides any shadow of the truth. He takes another long drag of the cigarette and casually ashes it into the tray on the table. It’s a simple enough task, yet it feels like the weight of a thousand fuck-ups are lying across his shoulder blades. It angers him for some reason that the light in her eyes glows while his are traced with dark circles.

“What have you been up to?” he asks her, turning the conversation to her favorite subject.

“Everything and nothing at the same time. I’ve really missed you.”

He smiles with the acknowledgement of her missing him, but doesn’t reply. He will always miss her like a fine line drawing without the detail—color without contour. Yet, he can’t seem to find a way to say, “I miss you too,” without it becoming some sort of hopeful gesture.

Still, there’s something comfortable about seeing her. A familiar uneasiness in her voice whenever she talks about her desires, the way she nervously twists her hair around her fingers when she speaks. For a moment, he feels full. For a moment, he feels alive. For a moment, he wants to reach out to her and hold her hand, pull her toward him, lay his head on the round of her stomach. But he doesn’t, and he won’t. He knows the price of her touch, and he’s not willing to tangle himself up in her thorny bits of chaos.

She pretends to ignore his silence, and rambles, “My goal this year is to get my paintings into a gallery… I have no idea what I’m doing with myself… I feel so free, like I can do anything, and yet so constricted by my own thought process.”

He listens as her ideas sway back and forth like a leaf caught in a drift. He is agitated by her spatial inconsistencies. The way her thoughts never seem to come to any real conclusions.

“I don’t know… I just hope that I make something of myself. That I can learn to accept myself as an artist, you know?”

He nods with a realization that without him, she is not grounded. Suddenly, he feels the inevitable urge to save her from herself. Only he knows that this is why he left in the first place.

She doesn’t need to be saved or fixed or changed. She is this person, this child-woman who forgets to turn off the oven after she’s done baking, who doodles flowers on the corners of important paperwork when she’s talking on the phone. She is home to him, and yet she is everything he loathes. She is a Picasso in a room full of Monets.

He is brought back by the silence, and he realizes that he is staring her in that judgmental way that she hates. She smiles airily, but the heated desperation in her eyes betrays her.

“What?” she asks.

He shrugs.

There are things that he has never said that she already knows. It was implied in every action and every non-gesture. The long nights he spent on the computer, the way he forced her to take a full-time job instead of the internship at the gallery, the way he would stare at her paintings in the middle of the night loathing each passionate stroke of the brush. Or the way he helped her pack her things on Christmas morning and dropping her off on her mother’s doorstep.

He drove away, never looking back, feeling the oxygen return to his lungs, the life tingling back into the ends of his fingertips. He knew then what he still knows now and will never be able to free himself from.

She will never be good enough.

His life is empty without her, and yet when she’s around she takes up so much space that he hardly knows who he is anymore. He is only an appendage, an arm or a leg, an extension of her neurotic tendencies, a safety net for her to fall.

She will always be too much and not enough at the same time.

So, he closes the book on his lap, butts out his cigarette, and he makes an excuse to walk away. When she says goodbye, he hears the disappointment in her voice. She knows that nothing has really changed.

It never does.


“In college, I won 4th Place for column writing at a California State Community College Competition in 1994. I also won an Honorable Mention for poetry at the Cal Poly, Pamona Harvest Competition in 1994. Since then, I have had my fiction and poetry published at Scars Publication and Spanq Magazine. I have also written a screenplay, SMALL DETAILS, which was filmed and distributed in 2002.” E-mail: phluphee[at]

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