I am a firm believer in leaving space for everything. An empty seat for your grandmother who is running late, a few feet of gravel between you and the car in front of you, a centimeter at the top of your mug of coffee to prevent spilling, and, on days when I’m feeling particularly lonesome, some space between picking the next song once I had hit the end of the one I was listening to.
And I leave space for new things to fit in, but only if they’re small enough to continue leaving space for more. I met the first girl I fell in love with at the corner store when I was buying mustard for the french fries I’d saved space for in my refrigerator. She glanced at me, eyeing the way my sweatshirt limply fit my body, as her friend, a lanky male, pulled her out of the store towards his awaiting bedroom. I found her again two weeks later leaning against the produce section, waiting to see if the bananas would ripen. This time she let me hold her hand. Resting her spindly brown hair against my shoulder blades. Before I left, I whispered curses to the store keeper as she glared at the plastic bags we had left on the floor.
It was three months later when I found her again. As I waited to stumble upon her figure I kept walking past the store. Always leaving space for a little detour on my way to the gym where I worked. I would spend hours at front desks, swiping cards through readers and sliding passes towards large men as I thought of her hands sliding over mine. I’d forget to hand the I.D. back to the brawny men trying to get through the metal detectors. They’d never glare at me, gave me the space to mess up, before rapping on the desk in front of me, bringing me right out of her eyes and into the gray of the room awaiting me.
My mom told me to leave the gym, said college degrees weren’t made for plastic desks and whimpered apologies. I had made my mom move far away from me years ago, once I’d decided I could wait around for climax’s to hit me. She had listened and moved to Sedona and spent days hiking around with the guy she wasn’t seeing but wouldn’t let me tell my dad about. I called my mom the day I met the one. Phoned from the payphone down the street and told the story of how I’d met the woman for me. She first asked me if I was drunk and followed it up with is this girl real. Once we’d both clawed at the silence for a few minutes she congratulated me and told me to invite the girl over for thanksgiving dinner.
I saw her again at the barbershop next door to the corner store. She was reading a magazine as she waited for her friend to finish getting his hair buzzed off. She grinned at me when I sat down and pulled out my own copy of Vanity Fair. After twenty minutes of silent reading her friend walked out to feed money into the meter, so they would have time to eat lunch, sitting across from one another. As the doors swung close she began to tap her fingers against my knee. Creating her own rhythm that moved with my breathing. She didn’t look at me as I flipped through pages, skimming over scantily clad women resting legs against men who stared right at me. They knew what we were doing. I let her close the space. She slowly pressed her lips against mine as the door opened again. And then she left with the ringing of the bell.
I had to stop looking for her after that. My mom called. Told me that the space I was leaving between myself and everyone I knew was unhealthy. Said I needed to come home for a little bit, see how the lack of space felt. But the closer I went towards the canyons of Arizona, the further I was from her. Miles stretched between myself and her long fingers. I spent the days hiking up hills where the sky endlessly stretched ahead, almost as long as her. Sometimes I sat next to the pool and watched people link ankles as they sank into the water. I would imagine her boney ankles clinking against mine like champagne flutes. And then would go back inside.
I went home two months later. My mom had sent me to a doctor after I’d missed my grandfather’s funeral, two weeks into my trip. The cleanly shaven baby faced white coat told me I was fine, said maybe I should talk to more people, more often, and maybe try and join a few new groups back home, just to see if it changed things. And so I told him I was part of a gym and that I’d met a girl a few months back, and he let me leave. My mom didn’t want to let me leave. She never did. Space made my mother anxious.
The day after I got home, I saw her again. She’d gotten a haircut, maybe a few inches. She was two apartments down from mine. She was smiling at the dog panting at the window a few feet above her. I let her notice me and walk over. She had stopped smiling but her eyes glowed. She took my palm in hers and kissed the bruises on my knuckles, not saying a word. I wrapped my other fingers around the strands of her hair, interlacing each thread between my fingers. I waited for her to finish taking her eyes away from the hand I had outstretched before pulling her close to me. Breathing foggy cups of coffee in each other’s face as our eyelashes collided. She smiled at me. Her teeth echoing against empty tree trunks. I let her walk away, back down the sidewalk towards the corner store.
I never saw her again. I quit my job at the gym and got hired at the corner store. As I bagged cans of peaches and sifted through piles of flaky paper bills I looked for her. Waiting for the door to open and her to smile at me again. I knew she would never step in, but the looking gave me something to do as the days got longer and my life got shorter. I couldn’t forget her. I told my mother I wouldn’t be coming home for christmas, she tried to convince me that being alone wasn’t helping me. But I told my mom I wasn’t alone, I had her memory. I saw her in every empty chair and loose grocery bag and every snip of scissors. With my ear pressed against the receiver, I could see her brown eyes boring into mine as if to tell me to listen to my mother, let the Christmas carols consume me rather than her memory. I blinked and hung up the phone, the space unbearable.