They reconnected across subway trains, her mouth curling into an O, a crooked smile spreading across his face. Catching each other's gaze, holding it. That’s all it took. He was back in her head, as if he'd never left.
She worked for years to free herself, spent countless gin-soaked hours with friends and drained her wallet into the cushions of a therapist's couch. Finally, she was able to shove the memory of him into the far recesses of her consciousness, into a broom closet reserved for emotions she'd never revisit. Still, every once in a while, a song came on the radio, a tune filled the air with the essence of him, and the door creaked open. She hurried back there, out of breath and panicked, closed it with a heavy hand before a trickle of feeling could escape. Then she dialed the radio knob to the left or the right, turned up the volume just as far as it would go and gulped in sounds. She piled them high against the closet door and locked away all vestiges of yesterday.
They were headed in opposite directions, he coming, she going. Their trains came together somewhere along the track, screeching to a halt for no apparent reason, windows kissing windows, sparks escaping from grinding wheels. They locked eyes and he strolled right in, snaked through the crowd, slipped through rubber and glass, pierced skin and bone and stepped back into her head. He dropped his bag in the center of her mind, grinning like he'd done before, saying everything she longed to hear without any words.
They held each other there, in the recesses of her mind, as she made her way from the subway. She fumbled in her purse, pressed her key into the outside door and climbed three flights to her apartment, her arms wrapped around a week's worth of groceries. Usually, such a burden felt immense, especially by the time she'd reached the second landing. Today she ascended as if made of air, intoxicated with the notion of him, with his imagined company. She placed the bags on the table, leaned them against one another so they wouldn't spill, but when the apples and the yogurt came tumbling out, she let them. She didn't bother with the television or the blinking light of the answering machine, either. She sat on the couch, bearing witness to the flood of images that spilled into her consciousness, watching him in vivid Technicolor reruns.
When the high waters of her past finally ebbed, he was still there, in the present, almost in the flesh, in the middle of her addled brain, sitting cross-legged on the undulating floor. Go, she said, leave, because she knew he shouldn't be there, because her world stopped spinning when he was in it, if only in her head. But he just smiled and stretched his arms, like he used to do. The boy I'm dating, he'll be here any minute, she said. It's okay, he said, winking. She shut her eyes and shook her head. No, it's not okay. It's too weird. He shrugged and hummed a tune, something achingly familiar.
The boy she was dating came round that evening, put the yogurt in the fridge and the apples in a basket, then made love to her on the futon beneath the open window. They could hear the neighbors' turntable belting out scratchy Sinatra tunes, the same record, the same skips, a Friday night standard. Her neighbors were old and trapped in yesterday. She'd study them when, on rare occasions, they ambled into the sunlight, his hand resting in the crook of her arm, her head leaning on his shoulder. They'd wait at the bottom of the stairs, maybe for a taxi to transport them to someplace magical, maybe just for a breath of air. They were two blades of grass, separate but indelibly fused, nurtured by the ground they stood on, swaying together, moving in unison no matter how the wind blew. She wondered how they got that way, what they did to find each other, how they made it work so well. She, in contrast, was wilted, untethered and formless, with no hope of rooting.
She liked to make love to Sinatra's soulful crooning, but that evening it felt wrong. There were too many people in the room, too many participants, too many eyes.
Are you going to make me choose? She asked when the boy fell asleep. No, he said, I'll go. And he did leave, eventually, but never completely.
The vacancy sign above her heart flashed neon red. Boys came and went and she reveled in their newness. But passion invariably gave way to routine, and mundanity pressed in on her like a shrunken garment: hot, itchy, suffocating. The closet door in the back of her consciousness, its latch long broken, swung open and closed like a porch screen in a black and white movie, at the mercy of a fickle wind. She couldn't control it, didn't even try anymore. And in the middle of it all, he'd stroll in, smelling of yesterday, upending her reality and wreaking havoc with her heart. He'd lay his long body down on the rug at the bottom of her mind and look at her in that way that, to her, meant everything. But before long he'd leave again, a white trail fading into the sky behind him as he walked, without looking back.
Then a new boy came along. He cocked his head to the side and gazed at her, his brow furrowing. That sound, he said, there's something broken, somewhere. He took out his wrench, stepped into her head and knelt down by the rickety screen door. It took a long time - days, maybe even weeks - but finally he managed to secure the latch. He turned off the vacancy sign, took her hand in his and led her away. At the entrance to his head, he swept her up and carried her across the threshold, just like she'd seen in those black and white movies, except this wasn't the empty windswept part where a fiddle cried in D Minor and the camera panned out, capturing loneliness. This was the happy part.
And when the boy from yesterday came back, he found the door shut tightly and the lights dimmed low. He knocked. He called her name. He hummed a tune only she would know. Then he smiled, nodded and moved on.
Heidi Heimler's work has appeared in both online and print publications, including Full of Crow, Yellow Mama, The Scarlet Sound, The Linnet's Wings and Popcorn Fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, WI and moonlights as a psychologist.