On the day my heart was broken, I was stranded behind a couple for eight blocks. It wasn’t my first encounter with this: heartbreak or being caught behind walls made of moving bodies.
They were an old, small couple. The right side of the wall had grayed, thin hair, a small wave that ceded, frozen, in an auburn crash against her neck. The other had a thin cap of bravely dyed strawberry blonde hair scattered against his spotted scalp.
They held hands at an odd angle, so they took up more space than necessary, so the muscles in their forearms were slightly engaged, holding them just far apart to still be together. They barely spoke and never looked at one another, the hand holding enough to ensure the other’s presence, to fulfill the duties of relating.
The only way around them seemed to be a ruining. A breaking of them, via the vericose, thinly spindled rope that held them, that made them more than forward-focused strangers. I almost felt large enough to step right over them. The most rebellious of their stray hairs only rose to the underside of my chest. They were like the tricky, safety baby doors that also trap the impatient adult.
I was supposed to be running, towards nowhere. Somewhere nowhere enough I would not be seen or heard. The distant sort of secret where I could cry until I expelled the weight of my self. I would know it when I saw it. It would call to me, a siren’s song and I would, like a ghost before death, enter in and surrender all the life of me left, trade for who I was supposed to be.
The couple and the streets barred with brightly colored vendors and storefronts that took advantage of every inch of sidewalk they were allotted with couches, tables, and benches to invite the indecisive tourist, postponed my ruin. And I hated and I loved.
You could hear their bones bend with each movement, with the thought of each movement. The energy required for their existence, for the momentum of their existence, was so audible it became the soundtrack of my thoughts until I was instrumental. Pushed the replay of memories to the back of me.
“Selah” the lady’s knees crooned as the earth asked her to continue forward. It was a graceful stumbling, the song of aunties, the kind of pain whose worth coddles its fervor. A tattooed movement, the type of forever strain that becomes forgotten, a blemish of a past life.
The man’s ankles, invisible zills, accompanied her, a serene calypso.
They were an odd band, the two of them. But the music of them, made my stranded surrender become a dance that looks like gravity, a centripetal force towards the core of who they were.
When I started to follow them, my mind erupted blankness. I tried to search for the history of me, any clues to who I was, and all I found was music. The lull of strangers’ soft, rhythmic steps inside of my head. The hum of a routine, that was not my own. One I never made nor understood.
The three of us found a bench near the water. It was made of stone and covered in sand. The song changed slightly as their shoes were removed. You could taste the dust, the grains, the itch in their hymn. It tickled in the way roses, still alive, do, when you lean too close to greet them. I audienced from a bench nearby, also stone.
There were hand imprints in their thighs, deep, fleshless, tunnel to bone. Each fossils of the other. Their fingers found their places and filled in the gap with the silent assuredness of habit, of home.
I wondered, alone, if the imprints came before or after their love. If they were products of time or promises of the future.
I wondered, alone, which was worse.
The volume of them grew as they sat. As if they had more energy to create while stationary. Those with musical instruments of the earth: cellos and guitars strung on backs for miles to perform for coins and “no-thank-you” head nods, put their music down, abandoned empty hats on street corners, and danced. Toes tapping on sand, smiles erasing all the struggles of yesterday, of minutes before. The giggles of children moving to their music bled through in a predetermined synergy. The sunset, an unrealistic red and violet uncapturable except by extreme presence, hovered longer than normal to illuminate the moment that was them. Everything rejoiced in their sound.
When she released him, the music stopped, and all of us shattered. I had fewer pieces to offer due to my recent fragmenting, but still, you could hear it. Me included now, a soprano to her tired baritone. The wind took some of our pieces before we were allowed to change our minds, allowed to pretend to mend. I saw his left ventricle rattle against the rooftop of the cafe I visited two days before, when I wasn’t alone. It threatened to get stuck beneath a loose shingle, but gleefully escaped to a transient freedom that was worse than the jail of that shelter.
She kissed his hand, the key to her. She stumbled as she stood, an infant to her independence. The tears between them made no sound. The silence hurt the most.
Within the silence, she started her own running. Everything, everyone else, returned to their befores, forever altered for the better, for the worse.
Alone, on a stone bench made for two, he reminded me of the man I’d earlier left. I felt the universe was forcing me to watch the consequences of my actions. Maybe, as she fled, she’d encounter my other half and have to feel his sadness— so we’d both know what we’d done.
I wanted to go over and tell him how sorry she was. But “sorry” is not the spell of resurrection. It’s only that familiar song, that music made by union that can cause creation. Their song had ended.
For hours, I watched him sit motionless. The sounds of the street, the waves, the people around turned up to disappear their, his, noiselessness. I saw him shake and adjust to the cold air that now made an invisible cast of her space within him. It would fill soon, with his own flesh if he was patient, with the flesh of another if he was desperate.
And right there, in public, amongst the gazes of strangers I’d likely reencounter, I cried.
I looked at the valley in my chest and bestowed more strength to the torrents released, to the convulsions expressed. The hole in me seemed to have gotten larger, eaten away at what was left. In the gap I was left with, I saw my smile, my laughter, the deep peace of not having to try to be anything other than this body. I saw the way he used to kiss me, the way he was able to fuck me through forgiveness, a tour guide to my own humility. I saw all the ways normal, nothing, became a circus before us, endless adventures, projected from the landscapes of our mind, unfolding in the sorcery that was us. In the spaciousness that was his, I reencountered all the ways I wanted him, all the fantasies I had of him, before and after he was mine. I tasted each of our arguments, how they always ran out of breath, sweaty, panting quitters, while climbing the mountain that was our love and allegiance. In my concaves, I heard whispers of all the ways he’d loved me, his tears of surprise and confusion as I told him how the endless was over.
I coughed up my insides until I was both full and empty of myself. I heaved and stretched, turning the bench a deeper gray, a less comfortable wet.
I mourned for her. The acapella. I worried for her. Sometimes it is too late to find yourself. Sometimes, yourself, has been too thoroughly excavated.
He had lost his heart to the wind. We all saw the pieces go their own ways. But hearts are organs of magic. They have more lives than we can use in a lifetime. With time, with sounds of new lands and people, he’d recover.
But hope, but trust in yourself, is a fragile gem. One of no sound and a single keeper. If she lost it, there was no replacement. No tools for regeneration. Maybe she knew this, deeply, as she exited. Maybe that’s why she cried. Maybe that’s what broke her, broke me.
After music like this— the sort to rob you of the need to think, reduce you to body, reunite you with earth; the sort to invite strangers into your spell and make them dance along; the sort to make envy and joy one; to rob language of its power; let intuition and spirit reign in the way they were destined— one voice, alone, unaccompanied, can never feel anything but frail, thin, and lacking.
Ngozi Oparah is a queer, first-generation Nigerian-American woman. She graduated from Duke University in May 2013 With a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Philosophy. She most recently graduated from the California College of the Arts with a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Writing. She currently works as the Director of Community Programs at StoryCenter, a digital storytelling non-profit in Berkeley, California.