The cold sets in like a mouse trap; quick and painful. Suddenly your limbs flail around trying to salvage warmth where it exists but it's hopeless. All you can do is sit still and wait for solace to find you.
The silence hurtles toward you like a scream, ripe with the agony of all the things felt and unfelt.
The loneliness casts a shadow that elongates, becoming twice the size of your body, making you seem insignificant in comparison.
Lila was three days, two hours, and 27 minutes into her stay at a frilly cabin well-appointed in its Airbnb photos. As soon as she had come across the welcoming brick red door, the quaint Vinyl player inside, and the effortlessly winding stream out of the back patio, she knew it was the one. She felt her breath slow down looking at it, and freedom from the freight train of emotions she was experiencing everyday felt within reach. “No wi-fi,” the listing proclaimed proudly. “Cell service is very spotty and we recommend you arrange for no connection to the outside world while here,” the posting warned. She had felt breathless as she realized no one in the outside world would notice her absence for two weeks. The one person who would have cared had left, like a tarp that had flown away exposing her to the storm.
Within twenty-four hours of booking the stay, she had stuffed her life into her 2010 BMW and headed east. The California landscapes changed from the fog of the city to the dry brush of the Central lands that always surprised her with their hopelessness. For her, California was all about abundance- of beauty, opportunities, money - and to see wasted land wilting away was in such stark contrast.
Her fingers ached from the lack of warmth, the absence of heat from Ryan’s big palms that always enclosed hers and made them disappear. His warmth had saved her when the cold had settled in her chest. His season was one of joy, desire and adventure. But the season ended as suddenly as it began, withering the leaves in a flash, restoring the icicles where they once were. Bags were being packed, tears were being shed. She had wanted all of his things out of her apartment as soon as possible, even though the walls were splattered with remnants of their time together. She was pregnant with memories of moments that were, and fantasies of their future together that never were.
Lila decided to look around for a matchbox. The power had been out for thirty minutes, and along with it the electric fireplace, but she had been expecting it to come back any minute, squeezing all of her muscles into absolute stillness to avoid losing any heat through her pores. Matches. Where could they be? She rummaged through the kitchen drawers that were neatly stocked with everything else she needed to cook for the week, although she was never one for home-cooked meals. Ryan was the cook; he had gotten her out of the takeout cycle, and even inspired to use her oven. For his birthday, they had attempted a three-course home-cooked meal together. Lila didn’t recognize herself wearing the apron she had once gotten for free at a team building cooking class, poring over recipes, finely chopping herbs, and getting flour on her forehead. But she knew she liked this version of herself. She was sprouting shoots she didn’t know she had, and she had felt grateful for Ryan’s ardor that had allowed that to happen, like a greenhouse nursing its inhabitants to vibrancy.
No matches to be found. No candles in sight either. It dawned on her that a wooden cabin wouldn’t need stray candles lurking about. The darkness punctuated by shadows created by her flashlight was getting to her. The dark had never enamored her; its nooks and crannies made her heart palpitate. She preferred mornings, early mornings at that, when the light started streaking in purposefully, comforting her with its presence, its regularity, its predictability.
Lila opened the back patio door assessing the air with her body. It was just as cold as the indoors at this point. She pulled one of the brightly colored blankets supplied by her Airbnb host off of the swing. Swaddling herself, she lay down on the picnic bench on the furthest end of the patio right by the stream and looked up at the gleaming, inky sky. She looked around for Mars to orient herself. Then she traced Jupiter with her eyes, and Orion’s Belt. This was all Ryan’s doing. On their second date, they had walked into a park that somehow hid away the trademark blinking of the city and covered them in a dome of stars and solitude. He had placed his large left palm on the small of her back and guided her eyes toward his right index finger pointing out star after star. She had never thought to look up, to try to decipher what was up there, but suddenly through his index finger, she saw possibilities like never before.
She hadn’t told him until after it was done. It wasn’t even a decision she had actively made, weighing out both sides of the issue. She never did that. Her decisions were split second, like a thunderbolt in a night sky, and there was no looking back. No way to go back and trace the path that had led her there because the forest had swallowed it.
When she lay on the hospital bed with two strangers in the room, one holding her hand, squeezing it tightly, while the other entered her body with strange utensils, she hadn’t regretted her decision. Something about being with strangers made what was happening feel less true. Maybe years from now, this moment could cease to exist because no one from her life was sharing it with her.
When it was all done, she didn’t know how to feel. She looked at the nurse sheepishly, the person she had just shared such an intimate moment with, Lila’s eyes tinged with pain looking deep into hers. The nurse had said just enough… not too much, not too little. Then the doctor had walked her behind a set of curtains where she rested for a few minutes nibbling biscuits to make sure she didn’t have a fainting spell. She was glad the whole process had been short-lived. No prolonging of the inevitable. Leading up to it, she had met with the doctor who had asked her questions like, “Are you being forced into this decision?” The question was so outside of the realm of her possibility, that she had paused before answering. A pause that the doctor might have interpreted as a yes. But she knew that no one was forcing herself into this decision except her. There was no question of her not going through with this. She wanted the possibility extinguished, the book shut.
She no longer felt the cold; it just lay with her like a lover you take for granted. She was starting to see shapes in the stars she hadn’t before. She saw a bunny with a bent left ear. A lion with kind eyes. And a sailboat with its mast proudly up. Her solitude had an imagination. It wasn’t the kind of self-righteous solitude heretics or writers seek, it was an unwanted loneliness that made every muscle, bone, and cell in her body ache.
When she had told him, a fortnight after her hospital visit, she had expected that he would be shocked but nod in understanding. Instead, he had stared at her, as if recognizing her for the first time for who she was. He didn’t say anything for a while, as was customary. He always hunted for words and took his time with them. Unlike Lila, he never rushed to say anything he didn’t mean.
And when the words came, they were spoken with a hot rage unlike him. How could she have made this decision without him? Why was she just telling him? What did she want from their future together? The questions came flooding, ones she knew she had no answers for. She searched for sympathy in his eyes, for what she had been through, admiration for her having done this alone. But there was none. The specks of gold and green she would find in his eyes weren’t there anymore. They were now an ugly, matte brown opaquely regarding her, the warmth gone.
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