Like pieces of a battered puzzle, we still fit, our minds and words interlocking, meshing. The years have burred our edges; where once we slid together neatly, becoming one, now there is friction in our union. But union it is, still. Is that enough? Is anything enough?

I leave. Again and again, I walk away. I close her door slowly, gently, as if doing so hurts us less. As the door swings, I watch her face through the shrinking gap, praying that she will not look up at me, praying that our eyes do not meet in the final moment before sight is snuffed out. Even this is torture enough, without those sad eyes on mine. Please don't look up. I'm so sorry. Why do I watch, every time? Why not turn away, slam the door, let the past wither?

The plane speeds south through the night. The window presses into my face as I search for patterns in the shrinking city lights. A ghostly reflection on the glass shows a tanktopped girl, seated behind, also peering down past the jet's wing. I peek through the gap, catch a glimpse: shimmery dark hair, smooth arms, cleavage, a waist. She leans forward, toward me, to retrieve a camera, and a breezy waft of shampoo and soap and woman punches me in the gut. She is travelling alone. Her face is invisible, but I know already that she is beautiful and that as we disembark our eyes will meet, I will find the courage to buy her an overpriced airport drink, we will laugh, and as morning nears our sweat will mix and limbs tangle...

We land, taxi, stop; passengers stand. I turn to see the woman in the white singlet top. She is barely adult, an awkward, forgettable young girl with lip-bulging braces and soft cheeks and darting eyes. The fantasy dissolves.

Was she the ghost I've been chasing? Am I chasing anything? Do I even move, or am I frozen while the world moves around me?

A dirty, cluttered garage. Lifting any object in here will bring dust and sneezing. I lie on the unmade mattress which crams one corner, and listen to sirens and planes and crying babies. A spider worries at its useless web across the room, legs waving randomly. Behind, on the wall, its silhouette copies every move, suddenly transforming one awkward creature into a pair of graceful ballerinas.

I smoke. Ugly plumes of exhalation drag themselves toward the ceiling. Every indrawn breath might be the one that catches inside, grabs hold, grows black and evil and slowly begins its stubborn choking march.

I stare at the ceiling, looking for an answer. The ceiling stares back.

"Hello", I say from behind the store counter. The woman looks up at me and offers an ephemeral polite smile. No sooner than it had formed, her expression falls back into gloom. It is an apathetic gloom, which assumes the worst of my intentions. But really, I do enjoy helping people. Perhaps she doesn't believe it.

Now and again, humbugs like the woman come into the store. I can not tell if she enjoys coming into the store, or does so out of necessity. She is the kind that does not believe in being taught. Here for her milk, don't spare a word. It's not worth it. I guess that's what makes us a business.

There must be some way of getting through her countenance. Maybe I am not being patient enough. I once read a Buddhist proverb, which went something like, "water will most effectively and beautifully wear rocks, but only over a thousand years of persistence". That is true, but most people don't live a thousand years.

I am also afraid of deep water, because I do not know how to swim. Maybe I can be like a shallow stream though, where frogs and crickets live. Then I would not have to worry about swimming, only maintaining the tranquility of my little waterfalls.

But maybe the woman does not have time for little waterfalls. She must be very busy.

The Sufi poet Rumi once wrote about a thing he called the 'open secret,' which I'll paraphrase like this: basically, everyone's fucked up, everyone tries to hide their up-fucked-ness, and everyone thinks they're the most fucked-up individual around, all other things being equal.

In my youth, I wasn't just introverted. Introversion is simply a biological tendency for the neocortex to be in a higher state of activity when alone than extroverts, who show much lower levels of cortical activity in solitude (but spring to life when around others). I wasn't just an introvert; I was a loner, and not always by choice. A combination of my rather dismal personal history, coupled with the depression I inherited from my long-suffeirng mother, made me the dour soul I am today. I was pretty fucked-up, and I knew it.

Little did I know.

I met a girl in the ninth grade. She was the sweetest, kindest soul I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. When she went back to her home country, I never heard from her again, until I received news she had committed suicide.

I met another in the twelfth grade. She was smart, motivated. She had something of a rocky personal history, but back then, it seemed to me that it was the kind of thing that makes a person all the more wise for her sufferings. Little did I know. Her son went missing under suspicious circumstances and Nancy Grace ripped her a new one on the air. She was found the next day with her head blown off, shotgun lying at her side.

I worked with a guy about a year ago. He walked around with the calm of a Buddha. He and I occasionally smoked a bowl and bullshitted at his place. He met a girl, and things were great with him for a while --- maybe too great, because she broke up with him for his drug abuse and he rededicated his life to his first true love, heroin and coke. He's still in rehab.

I was at a party recently, and ran into a friend. He's the head of a local campus religious group, and has that whole 'this too will pass' attitude about him. But on his and my third beer, he started asking really pointed questions about what people thought of him, wondering why people don't like him. I wanted to tell him I've been in that situation before, living one life outside your door, while retreating once in a while to sob on the other side, but I couldn't figure out how to do that without it sounding like empty platitudes.

Sometimes, the folks you run into who seem to have it all together, really are just held together with duct tape and Bondo. By day, I was the smart kid, the guy who could draw, the guy who aced every test he ever took without even trying, the guy who could outrun the cross-country team. By night, I counted my scars and wondered if I'd ever make it out alive. When you're a teenager growing up in a broke and broken family, who knows nothing but what he's lived through, a year is forever, and the lure of college hangs like a gleaming citadel on the horizon, made unreachable by the alligator-infested moats of affordability and academic standards (yes, world, we got those in America, you just gotta look for them).

I made it, though, and while I can't say I'm exactly happy, at least I can say I am remarkably free from regrets. My heart goes out to those who lie broken by the road, unable to get up and keep going. I could have been you, if life hadn't turned out like it has in the past two years since I broke up with my then-fiancée. But I don't know how to help them up. I wonder how it would have been if I had someone help me up, and then I realize it wasn't just one person offering their hand and pulling me up off the roadside --- it was a dozen or so people who each offered their hands in turn, when I needed it the most, but only when I needed it the most.

I can't be anyone's savior. But at least I can stretch out my hand once in a while and offer a sympathetic ear.

Continued -->

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