A story about love. Love can be anything but love can be everything too.
Wallace wrapped the earrings up with his own hands thirty years ago on that very day. He hadn’t known then whether he would ever come back and touch them or whether they would blend into the obscurity of a hundred thousand other untold stories. All he had known back then was that they were all he had.
His wife had called them ‘little drops of heaven twirling on a golden rope like a circus performer’. They were tiny glimmering gems set atop a silver ring dangling from the slivers of golden thread wrapped exquisitely together. When Wallace had first seen them, he had been twenty-three and madly in love with the woman who was to be his wife.
Sarah used to be a performer at one of those little art theaters which aired sober versions of popular musicals but brought them to life with the childlike patience of an affectionate old aunt. Wallace would be there at seven every evening when Sarah would come out in her peach pinafore, her eyes sparkling with both excitement and love and her face lit up under thick layers of runny make-up. She couldn’t quite move the rest of her face but he didn’t care. He knew that when she lay next to him every night in nothing but a thin negligee, she was beautiful and at peace. It had been the perfect love-story to tell their children.
And the earrings were all that remained now. Wallace didn’t know why he had come back when he had planned never to set foot in the place that was alive with so many memories of a woman he had given his heart and soul too. But back now, after all these years, he looked at the emptiness of the deserted house, at the bare walls which had once been alive with the kind of warmth only a woman could bring to define a home and he didn’t feel the way he was supposed to. He didn’t feel remorse or the pain that had kept him up through the nights. He felt peaceful because. As if he had never lived in this house. As if he had never known Sarah. As if this had all been a dream and he had woken up after all these years only to realize he didn’t remember half of it but whatever lingered made him happy. He smiled and wrapped his hands around the testament of love- the only thing he was going to carry from then on.
Sarah’s hands had become bony and her face had shrunk. The beauty was still there but her eyes sparkled like diamonds. Wallace held her hand in disbelief. Like holding on to it would make her stay. He couldn’t let her get away. Not like this. Not this soon.
‘I’m sorry Wallace,’ she was saying but he held her hand against his chest and shook his head like a little child.
‘Look at me, please.’
Reluctantly he lifted his face and looked into her eyes.
‘I have less than a month left and I can’t leave you like this. I want to leave you with memories but I want you to be happy and you cannot be both. So I have something I want you to do.’
‘What?’ he asked, not trusting himself to utter another syllable.
‘Throw away everything you have of me. All of it. Every single thing. And leave, go far away to a new city, a fresh start, a new life and maybe new love’
Wallace looked at her now, as though she was crazy.
Over the next few days he tried to make her see how crazy her plan was, how absolutely unrealistic. It wouldn’t cure a thing, it wouldn’t change the truth. But she was so adamant, he had to give in. And after she died, he sold all her stuff and left everything behind. But he never sold the house. He couldn’t.
The girl felt woozy. She was sure love wasn’t meant to hit her, not after what she had seen her parents do to each other while they’d been in it, but she couldn’t help it. He was older and had some freckles, he had curly blonde hair and wasn’t all that tall but when he sat in front of a piano, she forgot all about that. She forgot how, when she had first met him as a little girl with pigtails, he had stolen her favourite pie from right under her arm and made off with it, grinning foolishly back at her while she cried. She forgot how he had been mean to her when he was the jock kid at school and she was a fresher with braces and plain clothes; how he wouldn’t even acknowledge her in the corridors and make fun of her if his friends did. She forgot all of it when she saw him again, after five years of drudgery, playing piano like his fingers were on fire and his soul bursting with heart-wrenching agony. And when she waited to speak to him afterwards, he smiled at her and talked to her like she was real, not an abstract wisp of smoke floating somewhere in the background of his life.
Fred met her almost every day after his show and it had taken her three weeks but she knew it now. She was in love. It was going to be disastrous, she was going to die but she was in love and nothing could be done about it. She didn’t think he loved him. She was very drab still and though her clothes weren’t patched together anymore, she dressed for convenience in dark dresses of plain tees and denim with her hair pulled back. She was experimenting with lipstick now but walking into a store and asking to see one was intimidating too.
But the wooziness made her heart feel full. It wouldn’t matter, ultimately, whether he loved her or not. There was nothing good to get out of love and she knew that and she thought Fred did too. They had a secret midnight corner where they would smoke up and watch dreams swirl by and then they would get up and walk about it under the starlight. She loved it. It would be enough.
Fred took her hand in his that night though. Her heart fluttered like a butterfly and she looked out at the stars but he was bending forward and when she looked down, her face was inches before her. Slowly then, he leaned forward for a kiss and his lips touched hers with the tender fury of the tentative first taste of love. She swooned and grew pale but kept kissing back now, with an urgency she couldn’t define.
She felt happy when she went home that night. Fred did love her. Things could work out and then he would play for her every night, after they had tucked their children into bed. She told herself to not be silly but the thoughts wouldn’t go away and she sang herself to sleep, feeling blessed.
The next morning she found a note inside her bag she hadn’t noticed before. It was in Fred’s scrawl and read, ‘The last three weeks have been wonderful. It is true what they say; you find love in the strangest places and when you least expect to. But love is a chain I am not willing to wear. Not yet anyway. And I have places to see. So I am catching an early train out of here. I hope you don’t see this note before I’m gone. I hope you don’t try to find me because it would hurt me to hurt you but I’d do it if I would have to.’
No, no, no. She thought. She couldn’t let this happen. Her drowsiness was gone in an instant and she grabbed her wallet and keys and ran out the door. As she ran, she thought, don’t be silly you don’t even know which train he took. He’s probably gone. Forget it.
But her feet refused to listen and she ran all the way to the station, breathless for a last goodbye. She searched everywhere but there was no sign of the man she loved. As she turned to walk out, she realized, to her frustration, there were tears in her eyes. She let them flow, accepting them freely as she walked. People were staring at her but she didn’t care. It was cold and she felt hurt but she didn’t care. She would have kept walking if the old man hadn’t stopped her.
‘Why are you crying, young woman?’ he said and she noticed he had kindly eyes, thick-rimmed glasses and a mass of curly hair which were blonde like Fred’s but fading with age.
She didn’t reply but stopped and a fresh river of tears fell down her eyes.
‘Tears of love?’ The old man asked with a knowing smile.
She looked up, defiant and willed herself to stop crying. ‘Maybe.’
‘What is your name, Miss?’ he asked her next and for some reason, she couldn’t help but tell the truth.
‘Sarah’ she said and looked at him just in time to see a flicker of emotion pass behind the wisdom of his aged eyes before he masked it again. She understood then that pain in love was universal without exception and this man had too, in his own way, experienced something he wouldn’t talk about. Or couldn’t. Because it would never make sense to anyone else.
‘Maybe I was wrong.’ The old man was saying. ‘Maybe I can’t hold on to something I never really had. But love cannot be chained, can it? It always flies away, one way or the other. That’s the truth.’
She raised her eyebrows again. He had said the very emotion she had felt behind the lines of Fred’s letter. ‘I-I don’t know’ she stammered but he wasn’t even listening to her. His eyes were glazed over and he was mumbling.
‘I thought my memories were noble but memories are just that- the past. You can hold on to them but time will still erode them away, one chip at a time. They become pathetic shadows after a while.’
Sarah stood silently, out of politeness, more than anything but the old man seemed to come to after a while. He looked at her and reached within his pocket. He took out a small paper bag and thrust it into her hand with the vicious force that only old people possess when they’ve let the passion of their youth reach their hearts again.
‘I want you to keep this. You’re Sarah and that’s special. Remember that. And remember to look for love and cherish it with reverence.’
He turned and began walking away. Sarah unwrapped the packet and saw a pretty pair of earrings inside. She looked up.
‘You didn’t tell me your name’
The old man stopped but didn’t turn back.
‘Wallace’, he said and then walked away.