“A Love Song” by Flinn Leigh Eng

A Love Song

I don’t believe in true love.

The concept of “soul mates” is a comforting fiction for some, but not me. The quickened pulse of the heart, a faint feeling of anxiety, worry over making the right decision—Iris does not evoke that in me. I didn’t feel that particular unease when I met her. Much stronger in my memory is the way the world slows down when I am with her.

Everything calms when I see her. I feel the tumult in my mind quiet down. As bold as she is in life, I know her asleep, when she cannot be anything but honest. In her sleep, she is a soft, melodic rhythm of tenderness and comfort. I know the way she curls into my chest in her sleep, her arm draped across my body, the sound of her contented sigh carrying me toward comfort. I know it, and I miss it.

It took me too long to tell her how I felt about her. Looking back, I know I felt it weeks, maybe months before I told her. It just didn’t feel the way I’d expected it to. I’d expected something stereotypical, something theatrical and grand. I’d expected to be able to pinpoint the exact moment I fell head over heels. Instead, what I felt for her was a quiet comfort, a joy I could find in no one else.

I cross the street, careful to avoid a puddle that has gathered near the curb. It’s well after sundown by now. If I were going to see anyone else, I wouldn’t come calling this late. The warm spring breeze blows right through me, doing nothing to warm my unrelenting chills. Even at a distance, I can see little changes that mark my absence, decisions she has made without me. The plants that used to live on the windowsill in our bedroom have been removed. The garden looks untended, overgrown with weeds. There’s a different welcome mat at the door. Handfuls of small, inconsequential things, all of which add up to something that feels big. I think to look over my reflection in the windows by the front door, but the only thing I notice is that she’s taken down the wind chime. The silence outside the house borders on oppressive.

I go through the front door. The lights are on, and the house is silent. From here, I can see into the dining room, where a pile of what looks like unopened mail sits on my side of the table, a single place mat at hers. A half-empty cup of tea sits ignored on the place mat, the open jar of sugar beside it. Iris sits curled up the table, silently reading in her pajamas with her legs tucked up underneath her.

“What are you reading?”

I see her eyes freeze as I speak. Her whole body goes rigid. I’ve resolved to let her take her time, but it feels like hours before she finally turns her head to me. Her eyes meet mine, a welcome glimpse of familiarity after a long time alone. I smile at her, watching her expression open immediately.

“Arden?” My name in her mouth sounds beautiful and delicate, more precious and valuable than anything else in the world. Her voice is raspy from disuse, I think, or maybe she’s sick.

I can’t think of how to progress from here. This is not a situation in which I can afford to get things wrong, and at the same time, saying nothing is not an option. I think I came here to talk to her, so I ask her again what she’s reading, but I don’t think she hears me.

“It can’t be,” she says. Her hands shake as her body unfolds from the chair. The book drops with a bang to the table as she gets to her feet.

“I’m sorry it’s been so long.” I watch her closely, trying to get a sense of her reaction. Her lip is trembling, but so is the rest of her. She’s not quite smiling, but nor is she angry. If I’m being fair, I don’t really know what my reaction would have been, were we to switch places.

“You look…” Iris approaches me with tentative, barefoot steps on the kitchen tile. I stand still and let her look me up and down. “You look good.”

“Considering,” I tack on dryly. “I’m still cold, though. Are you ok?”

“I was fine,” she says. “Totally fine. I can’t believe…”

She breaks off into silence, blinking hard. Her voice is fractured with feeling, a crack of emotion threading through the sound.

The changes in Iris since the last time I saw her are obvious. She’s still wearing her engagement ring, which both lifts my heart and breaks it. But she’s grown alarmingly slight, her pajamas hanging loosely off her thin shoulders. Maybe she hasn’t been eating properly. She has always been a tiny woman, but she’s made up for this in the past by owning every square inch of the space around her solely through posture and carriage. Her hair falls down her back in unruly curls, and she has the darkest, most captivating eyes I’ve ever seen—which are, at the moment, probably accentuated by the fact that she has started to cry. She has always had a strong presence, but right now it feels dimmed. I’ve caught her off-guard, but I don’t know how I could have done this better.

“I’m sorry it’s so late,” I say belatedly.

“No,” she says at once, swiping her sleeve across her face. “Don’t be.”

The first time I met Iris was in the music shop in the next town over where I worked on the weekends. I don’t even remember what I was doing at the time—probably re-alphabetizing a section of records or something. I heard the bell over the door and looked up in time to see a woman in a gauzy white sundress enter the shop. She took off her sunglasses and surveyed the place, and for a second I thought I saw her eyes settle on me. Suddenly, her face lit up.

“Hello, darling!” she’d said.

I’d watched her come toward me as if in slow motion, trying to recall where I’d seen her before that she’d calling me darling right off the bat. But she walked right past me without so much as a glance. She was there to meet someone else, a date that somehow went south in the first ten minutes despite her every effort. I remember watching her thumbing dismally through some sheet music by herself, as if to kill time more than to search for anything in particular. I picked up the tablature for Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang and slid it across the counter to her. She took one look, laughed, and said she didn’t play guitar. Did I have a piano arrangement?

I asked for her name, and the shine of her voice embedded itself into every nerve of my body. It took a few months of her “accidentally” returning to the shop when I was there for me realize that it wasn’t an accident. It was easy from there to forget past flames, to regret all the songs I wasted melodies on before her. Now, I wish I had saved every sound I have ever made, so that she could know that every note that ever left my voice was meant for her.

“How are you?” I ask her. She takes a deep, shaking breath, hugging herself in lieu of hugging me.

“I’ve been better,” she admits, her voice cracking. She clears her throat. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess—”

“It’s fine.”

She searches for words but falls silent again, leaving me scrambling for something else to say. Now that I’m inside, I realize how little of our house has actually changed, but the pervasive feeling of emptiness is suffocating. There’s something here—or perhaps, not here—that makes our shared home feel foreign and unwelcome to me. Maybe it’s the lateness of the hour, or just the simple fact that I haven’t been here in so long.

There are more obvious notes of Iris’s presence and my absence inside than there were out in the garden. A single empty hanger is on the hooks in the entryway, for Iris’s winter coat and my lack of one. Her shoes are placed neatly on the mat by the door. There’s only one set of keys in the dish on the landing. There’s a pile of dishes in the sink, sure, but only one of the place mats is on the table. My chair is pushed in and dusty.

I glance over my shoulder at Iris’s baby grand piano, the centerpiece of the living room. It dominates the space and draws the eye, even as it sits silent. It looks dusty, which is bizarre. Iris has always taken good care of the piano. But from the look of things, she hasn’t touched it in a long time.

I didn’t have any instruments in the house when Iris and I got engaged. I only ever used a record player to decorate my time at home. But once she moved in with me, there was constant humming in the air. We danced through our days to the tap of her toes, washing dishes or putting away groceries. Whenever she needed to think or focus, she hummed a familiar series of notes, her “thinking song.” She had dozens, maybe hundreds of little songs, for thinking and cooking and driving and reading, snippets of tunes and moods that colored nearly all of our time together. Even in the quiet moments, her body always swayed, bouncing to a beat only she could hear. I loved that part of her. I still do.

I remember skipping part of a day at work, a slow summer Friday, to be home to receive the piano so I could surprise her. I still don’t know if she could sense something different in me when I picked her up from work that day. I was eager on her behalf for a gift she knew nothing of. What I remember the most is the way her joy rippled across her whole body when she saw it, how she was completely and totally lost for words.

She walked around it, tracing the curve of the lid with her hands and peeking in at the strings, treating it with an almost spiritual reverence. I lifted the fall board to reveal the keys, and saw her elation written in the pull of her lips and the corners of her eyes.

Iris sat down that day, noiselessly touching the keys. She began slowly, a few notes at a time, probably checking to see if the piano was properly tuned. (It was. I knew better than to let her down.) But as she went on, it built into an unrestrained celebration that spanned the whole of the keyboard, her fingers dancing over the chords and gliding into vibrant explorations of tone. I stood back to watch her, savoring the experience of a song she would never share with anyone else. As I got to know her, the way she experienced the world and felt it with every nerve in her body, it seemed sacrilegious to expect her to give back anything but the syncopation and emotion of her ephemeral, spontaneous compositions.

But now the piano sits untouched, almost forgotten, as if she’s been avoiding it. The house is quiet, and so is she.

“How can you be here?” Iris asks suddenly, bringing me out of my memory. I look back at her. It takes me a moment to put my thoughts back in order.

“I don’t know,” I confess. “I wandered for a while until I found my way back home.”

“Why come here?”

“To see you.” It’s the truth, but it doesn’t feel true, so I add, “To hear you.”

“But I don’t…” Iris wrings her hands as she steps out into the living room. She searches my face as if I am a puzzle she has to put together. “Why? Why now?”

Something in her tone gives me pause. We haven’t spoken in a long time. Months, maybe. I can’t remember. All I know is that I’ve missed her more than I miss anything else. I don’t think of Iris in words, but in actions, shapeless feelings and desires for a future that I cannot distill into a single sound. What I want is impossible. I don’t know if she will understand.

“Because I was thinking of you,” I tell her. “I miss you.”

I don’t know why this is the wrong answer, but it definitely is. Iris’s brow furrows, her lips turn downward. Her breath quickens, still shaky.

“You miss me now? she asks.

“What?” I backtrack. What did I say? Wrong tone? Bad choice of words? “I do, I miss you. I miss you and I want to talk to you.”

“Now?” Iris asks. “Now you come to talk? Only now?”

“I don’t know how long it’s been,” I say, racking my brain to try to figure it out. It was snowing when I saw her last, and there’s no snow on the ground now…

“What, did you just get around to noticing you missed me?” she demands.

“It’s not like that!” I protest.

“Then what is it like?”

“I don’t…” I break off, thinking. “I don’t know. It’s been strange and confusing. I got lost for a while. I know things are probably difficult for you right now—”

“Difficult?!” she hollers, with such ferocity that I actually jump. “Do you have any idea what kind of hell this has been for me?!”

“I’m sorry—”

“You think you can just waltz in here like nothing happened?” The fracture in her voice finally breaks, and her eyes overflow. Tears stream down her cheeks. “Just ask me what I’m up to, like I’ll be happy to see you?”

“Are you not?” I ask.

“I—!” Her hands are shaking again, but this time I can’t tell if it’s from shock or frustration. “How? How are you here?! Why now?”

“Why not?”

“Why not?” she echoes, incredulous. “Why not? Arden!”

“Iris—!” I can’t find the right words. Everything I say just makes her more upset. She lets loose an unintelligible shout, a vocalization of how overwhelmed she is. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but it’s her. It’s worth it. “Do you not want to see me?”

“No!” she snaps. “Yes! I don’t know!”

Whatever conflicted feelings she might have had before, I think they’ve solidly given way to anger now. Her face is red from crying and from rage, her whole body shaking with the effort of containing all her emotions.

In Iris, moods and feelings play across her whole body, spilling out from her chest and rippling across the rest of her. Her anger is palpable in the air around her as it reverberates against her skin and strangles the song in her voice. While she has been cross with me before, I have never been on the receiving end of the unbridled depths of her rage. But even now, I don’t think that’s what I’m seeing. I’ve lost count of the arguments we’ve had over the years, but none of them were ever like this.

“After everything you put me through—”

“I’m sorry!” I keep my distance, even take a step back to give her space. “But it was an accident, wasn’t it?”

“I know!” The bitterness in her voice is almost tangible. I hold onto the hope that it isn’t really me she’s angry with. I’ve seen her in grief before. I know better than to take it personally. She rubs the heels of her palms on her eyes, turning away from me. “I was there!”

I remember her presence more than any pain there might have been. The water on the street had frozen into ice. I thought I was doing everything right, taking corners slowly and checking my mirrors constantly, almost compulsively. She teased me that we were going to be late. I just remember smiling in the split-second I had to come up with a reply. The skidding car that hit the driver’s side door took the breath out of my lungs and ended that song forever in a shatter of glass and thunderous crushing of metal.

I don’t think I could have avoided it. It was an accident.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her again. “I didn’t mean—”

“I know!” She keeps her back to me, her shoulders shaking. “I know it was an accident! I know, I just…!”

I want her to express all these hurt emotions. I do. I’d be lying if I said the guilt hasn’t hurt me, too. I wish I knew what would soothe her, some magic combination of words that would set her mind at ease. I don’t think these words exist. I don’t know if she will ever be all right.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been here to help,” I say. It’s true, but the words don’t feel correct. What role could I have possibly played in helping her grieve me? “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Iris’s shoulders droop. Her breath hitches in a stifled sob. She turns slowly, looking over her shoulder, as if to check that I’m still here.

“What did you think was going to happen?” she asks. Her lip trembles again as she folds her arms in a hug around herself. The silence weighs me down.

“I don’t know.” No matter where I look, I can’t find a place to rest my gaze. Nothing feels right to me. I don’t like to see her cry, but it would be awful of me to pretend she’s not in pain. “I just knew I had to come to you again.”

“Are you going to haunt me now?” she asks.

“I don’t think so. I mean, I know we have unfinished business, but…”

“Not really haunting material, I guess.” Iris twists the ring on her finger, a sad longing in her eyes. She gives a soft chuckle, a quiet, despairing melody. It finally clicks in my mind.

“It’s so quiet without you.”

Her eyes meet mine.  She draws in a trembling breath, but whatever words she might have said are lost. Tears flood down her cheeks as she sinks down on the piano bench, her back to the keyboard, her shoulders shaking. She is almost completely doubled over, her forehead pressed against her knees as she sobs. Her entire body shakes with grief. I can’t stand to see her in so much pain. The only thing worse is knowing that it’s because of me.

“I’m sorry.” It’s all I can say and it is not enough. My voice shakes, weighed down with tears of my own. I kneel down on the floor in front of her, looking up into her face. “Iris, I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” she sobs. “I’m sorry, too.”

I don’t know the name for what I feel right now, watching Iris cry at the piano. It can’t be grief, because I am not the one who lost her. It can’t be longing, because she’s right in front of me. My chest is caving in and I can scarcely breathe. She’s hurting. We both are. I don’t know what the right question is, nor do I know how to ask it. All I know is that I can’t stand the silence anymore.

“Will you play me something?” I ask. Iris looks up, equal parts confused and surprised by the request. “Just one song.”

“Arden…” Iris shakes her head. “I haven’t played for months.”

“I know.” I nod to the piano, in all its dusty glory. “Or, I thought as much.”

Iris hiccups. She looks uncertainly over her shoulder at the piano, seeming unwilling even to touch it. This is probably the first time she’s even sat on the piano bench since the accident.

“It’s all right if you’d rather not,” I say quickly. Maybe this is too much to ask right now. Maybe it’s too much to ask ever again. “I understand.”

Slowly, Iris straightens up. She wipes her hands on her pajamas, swings her legs around the piano bench so her feet rest on the pedals. She lifts up the fall board and ghosts her fingers over the keys, silently passing over them in what I think I recognize as scales. I never learned to play an instrument. Records were enough for me before I met her. I get up from beside the piano bench, the better to see her face as she plays.

She begins slowly, a few notes at a time. It takes longer than it has in the past for her to find the shape of the song she wants to play, I think. I don’t know what goes on in her mind or her fingers while she plays. I can’t imagine this is the easiest thing in the world for her to do, either. But she always builds to something special. It starts out deceptively simple, a repeated pattern that she slowly varies. She decorates the pattern and extends the phrases, sending her fingers over more and more of the keyboard as she reacquaints herself with the muscle memory of playing. The sound washes over me and sets my soul at ease.

In her song, I see her. It’s a quiet, peaceful sort of tune—not quite mournful, but not quite happy. It sounds like the homesickness in my heart. It misses me, as much as I have missed hearing it. Iris only looks up once during her song, at the high point of a glissando, and pauses to offer me a muted smile before ending it. She remains at the keys for another silent moment, eyes closed.

Somehow, in this, I feel like I know. She’s going to be fine. I bow my head to her.

“Thank you, Iris.”

Iris replaces the fall board and stands up. Now that the song is over, she seems to want to move more quickly than her body is capable of.

“Can I go with you?” she asks.

It takes me a moment to hear this question for what it is. The words don’t hit my brain right. It’s as if I have to parse each word individually before I can piece them together as a request. I search her face as I process what she’s said.

“No.” I don’t want that for her. She’s said it so quickly, as if she’s just asked to come to the grocery store with me. “Stay. Don’t follow me.”

She gives a sort of defeated sigh, as if she expected this answer. She pushes the piano bench back in and sweeps her hand over the fall board. It comes up, covered in dust.

“Promise me,” I say, now worried. I didn’t even think that seeing me again might conjure in her a desire to die. “Iris—”

“Ok.” She nods, tears trickling down her cheeks again. “I just miss you so much.”

“I miss you, too.”

“And I’m sorry,” she murmurs.

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry for.”

I wish the light in here were brighter. I want to see her in these last moments before I go. I want to hold onto this feeling, because I refuse to believe that I can’t. If there is a single power in this universe greater than death, I think it must be love.

“Can you stay?” she asks.

“No.” Even if I could, I don’t think I should. I reach out to her, to brush back her hair, but my hand goes through her curls. She closes her eyes, tears gathering again beneath her eyelashes. I don’t want her to cry anymore, but who am I to tell her she can’t?

“What happens next?” she asks. “To you?”

I have been dreading this question, because I don’t know the answer. There are no answers that I can give her. And where I am going, there are no more questions.

The walk away from the house is one of the hardest things I think I have ever had to do. Iris stands in the doorway, watching me go, and in the hours before sunrise, all I can think of is how thoroughly I will miss her. I know the way the pain will come, the heavy weight of guilt and heartache. But as I think about it, it will either be the worst pain I have ever felt, or absolutely nothing at all. Either way, this is the time I lose her forever.

I don’t believe Iris was my soul mate. I don’t think such a thing exists. All I know for certain is that the slim, fragile thread that brought me to her could have easily been broken or overlooked, and I would never have known. I don’t think she is the only woman I could have been happy with, but I think I am unimaginably lucky to have been with her. Time and grief may have changed her, but she is still the woman I fell in love with—bright and emotional, who experiences the world with her heart, while she was with me and now that she’s without me. My love for her echoes in every corner of my mind, monumental and immense and at the same time, not enough to contain the multitudes of her in my heart.

Her melody warms my voice as I hum it. I don’t know if whatever comes next will hurt, but I know I can face it. I carry her song with me into the great and final silence of the grave.