She stopped in her tracks. Her heart skipped many beats before she realized it wasn’t him. She walked past him as quickly as she could, afraid that he would call out and she’d have to stop.
“It’s not him,” she told herself.
Lara Stanley was an ordinary woman. There was nothing particularly striking about her. She was short, medium build, wore glasses and had coarse features that had never been complimented by many people. She was also very smart. She had an uncanny knack for problem-solving. She had the IQ of a genius. She was perceptive and knew exactly what people thought of her at work. She hadn’t had many meaningful relationships in her life. She had had only one boyfriend before she got married to her husband at the age of 40.
“Boyfriend?” She asked herself sourly. “Is that how he went down in the books?”
Truth was, he was the love of her life. They had a tumultuous affair. All her life she had been so focused on school, learning and then a career that she spent the best days of her life reading or applying to internships and later, corporate jobs. When she met Alex, he took her breath away.
Lara didn’t know what love was until she met him. He made her feel like the most beautiful woman on earth. And may be with him she took care of herself more. She spent more on her wardrobe and went to the spa regularly. She was also younger, much much younger then and youth almost automatically doesn’t require a lot of work.
After five years of an intensely romantic relationship, she got married to another man. A man who promised marriage and commitment. Alex couldn’t promise her those things. Steve could. So she chose Steve.
She had thought Steve was going to be the one. She had expected him to become the one over time. But time proved her wrong. She missed Alex everyday. She heard about him dating this girl or that for the first year of their breakup and while she was engaged to Steve but soon these news dwindled. He moved to Salem, Massachusetts and she found her dream job in her home town, Burlington, Vermont.
She sometimes wondered if he missed her too. When they were together the passion was endless. They loved each other tenderly and fiercely. Alex was a popular guy around town and many women wondered what he saw in Lara.
But Lara knew what he saw in her. He liked his partner to spar with him. He liked being intellectually challenged and stimulated. They had had some of the best sex after a particularly charged debate. They loved how smart they both were and how they could wear each other’s intellect with pride. That passion and fire bonded them.
Alex was huge on giving gifts. Besides typical boyfriend gifts like flowers, jewelry and trinkets, he loved buying her books. He bought her her first Kindle. Her intelligence turned him on. She remembered him look at her in amazement as she talked non-stop about dense business school concepts.
But when it was time to really swoop in and sweep her off her feet, he didn’t measure up. He didn’t want to get married.
“Why get married?” He asked defeatedly when she brought up the subject again.
“I can’t be with you like this forever, Alex! Everyone asks me what our long term plans are and frankly, I’ve wondered too. What is it that we are waiting for? Do you not love me enough?” She said desperately.
“Love has got nothing to do with marriage. Many people are married today who don’t love each other at all. I won’t marry you just to prove a point”. He said stubbornly.
After many similar arguments, they parted ways.
Lara remembered that day as if it was yesterday. She had gone to pick up her things from his apartment. As she collected her toiletries, she broke down and cried bitterly. Didn’t he care?
Two months later she met Steve. Two months into their relationship, Steve proposed. Lara called Alex.
“I called to say Steve proposed to me last night”.
“Congratulations”, he sounded genuinely happy, “Exactly what you always wanted. And so soon too”.
She couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic.
“Would you come to the wedding?”
“Your wedding? Sorry! I can’t do that. I have so many feelings for you still. It won’t be fair to you or me if I came to your wedding”.
She didn’t know what came over her but she blurted,
“I love you, Alex”.
He was quiet. She felt angry with herself for losing control.
“Don’t you love me? Have you already forgotten everything?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything. I haven’t washed the towel that you used before you left. Just to have your scent close to me. I’ve saved some notes that you left around the house for me. There’s a scarf that you left on my car seat. I’ve left it like that. Feels like you’re still here.”
She sat down, silently crying.
They got back together the next day. Lara returned Steve the ring. She told him she needed time to think and that it would be better if they stayed away for a few days. She didn’t tell him the truth. She didn’t know why. A part of her was terrified of the future. She had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t tell why.
Steve respected her decision. He was much older than her and could sense something not quite right. He told her that he’d be happy if she came back but that he’d be dating. She thought that was fair. They parted as good friends.
A relationship with Alex the second time was even better than the first, if possible. They lay in bed talking for hours. Sometimes they’d watch the sun rise together from their bedroom. They went to Hawaii for a week and had a magical time. Lara was happy. She had never been happier.
Six months into the relationship she started to get the same uneasiness about marriage and why Alex wasn’t proposing. She thought of many reasons and rejected all of them herself. He was insanely attracted to her. He loved her. He cherished her. He was always attentive. He spent money on her without reservation. He wined and dined her like he did in the initial days of their relationship and his love hadn’t wavered. Then why wouldn’t he marry me, she’d ask herself.
Soon after these questions raised their ugly head again, they broke up over them. This time it hurt less. This time she seemed to have some closure. This time she had her fill of him before leaving. This time she thought it was really over.
Because how many times can you break up really? How many times can you get into a relationship with the same man and enjoy it like it was a brand new relationship all over? How many times can that man pull at your heart strings and make you yearn for him more? How many times can you mourn lost love? How many times can you have a funeral for it?
When Lara moved on the second time she was firmly assured that she was closing the book on this one. She didn’t get as emotional. She washed all the towels before she left, removed every last article that belonged to her before she left. She even changed her phone number so he wouldn’t be able to contact her.
She called Steve a few days later and told him she was ready if he was. They got married three months later.
Lara thanked the stars for bringing Steve to her. He was patient, loving and very caring. He had a bug for traveling and they spent their honeymoon traveling through Europe. Steve had a big business and no shortage of money. He was the most sought-after real estate developer in the town and ran a big team of people. He didn’t have to regularly go to work or answer to anyone. He didn’t think Lara needed to work and Lara couldn’t work anyway what with the endless traveling and social obligations. She realized that she had become a sort of trophy wife. Steve hadn’t been to college and here he had a super smart, genius level woman on his arm. What he lacked in conversation and pizazz, she made up for.
Lara tried to look for the reasons why she married Steve or even dated him. She wasn’t so stupid as to marry her rebound then how did she? Surely no one marries their rebound guy. She sometimes wondered if it was a wise move. But then she remembered that she was pushing forty when she married Steve. In a shallow and cruel dating pool for a woman in her late thirties, she was considered lucky to have dated Alex, the most charming man known to most people in town and then marry Steve, richer than most men in town. People envied her.
When Lara and Alex broke up the second time she thought she had moved on. When she and Steve reached new heights of physical pleasure on their honeymoon she was certain that she had moved on. Sure there was a man in Florence she thought was Alex and had deliberately broken off from Steve to make sure it wasn’t him but she attributed it to the guy being so similar to Alex. Surely she could say hello to Alex, she thought somewhat heatedly. It wasn’t like they weren’t going to talk to each other if they saw each other accidentally, she told herself.
But as she was coming close to the third year of her marriage, the novelty of everything was starting to fade. She couldn’t see the point of marriage. Marriage had seemed such a natural and right path when she had broken up with Alex. She had thought it would be fulfilling, wholesome and magical. Instead it had become monotonous, boring and routine. It also had caused her to lose the man she loved above everything else.
Lara had always had insomnia but now it was particularly bad. She stayed up at night, visiting possibilities in her head.
What if she hadn’t married Steve? Then Alex would’ve been next to her right now.
What if she hadn’t forced him to propose? Then Alex would’ve been next to her right now.
What if all Alex needed was more time?
What if Alex was thinking about her too?
What if he tried to contact her but couldn’t because she changed her number?
One such night, she texted Alex.
Her fingers trembled. Her hand shook. Her nerves grated on her conscience. She felt she was cheating on her husband who knew very little, if anything, about Alex. She didn’t expect an answer but couldn’t stop herself from typing “hi” and then staring at the screen for a full minute before it lit up again. Alex had replied.
“Hey! Who is it?”
“Oh”. Then, “How are you, Lara?”
Lara felt her world brightening up around her. Like the full moon shone inside her window. She chatted via text messages with Alex for the rest of the night.
Soon it became her hobby, job and ritual to chat via texts with Alex almost all the time. Steve was happy because he could see that Lara had a cloud hanging on her the past few weeks. She seemed happy again. She seemed to always be in a good mood. He wanted to ask her but was afraid that he would spoil it. He loved her beyond reason. Her silence scared him. Her smile was the only bright thing in his world.
Lara texted with Alex at all times. She stayed up all night and texted. Sometimes when she couldn’t reach him or he didn’t text back fast enough, she felt herself becoming anxious. And angry. And upset. She hated the effect he had on her. She loved him so much. Sometimes she cried. She wanted to love Steve as much but she also wished Steve would leave her so she could be with Alex. Alex hadn’t gotten married and Lara couldn’t help planning a future with him.
But surprisingly, Alex declined to speak over the phone with her.
“I don’t think I can handle it. We will talk and develop feelings for each other again. How’s that good for us? You’re married”. He wrote.
“But we already love each other, Alex! We already know that”, she wrote back.
“I know. It kills me but if I hear your voice, I’ll have to have you”.
His words excited her and scared her. She read and reread his texts over and over. It became a pastime. Reading Alex’s texts. Pretending to be his wife. Talking to herself about him.
“Do you have kids?” Alex asked.
“No”, she wrote back.
“I don’t know. Didn’t happen for us”.
He was quiet. For many days.
But Lara couldn’t take it anymore. She wanted to see him. She wanted to feel his arms around her. She decided to divorce Steve. She thought about her decision over and over. She didn’t tell Alex about what she was thinking. If she told him, he would try to sway her and make her stay in her marriage. She realized she didn’t need a marriage. She needed Alex.
One morning she booked a train ticket to Salem, five days from then. She wrote a long letter to Steve, explaining in detail her reasons for leaving, her history with Alex and how she wasn’t being fair to herself or him. She intended for him to find the letter when she was gone.
The next five days were torture for her. When Alex had heard that she was coming to Salem he had been furious. She called his number again and again in hopes of speaking with him but he didn’t pick up. He stopped answering her texts. Lara couldn’t be deterred. She boarded the train at its time. Then she called Steve from the train,
“Lara, where are you?” She heard his concerned voice. He wasn’t used to not finding her at home when he came back from work.
“Steve, I have to tell you something but I won’t be able to say it. I’m not so brave. There is a letter in the top drawer of my nightstand. Can you read it and we can talk more tomorrow?”
“Honey what’s going on?”
“I’m okay. Really I’m okay. I need to do this for myself. I owe this to myself. And to someone else too. All the answers are in the letter. I love you but may be not enough and therefore leaving you isn’t painful if that’s what’s worrying you”.
She hung up.
Then she texted Alex.
“Whether you like it or not, I’ll be at the train station at 6 o’clock. You have to pick me up. It’s going to be dark and I don’t know my way around Salem”.
She saw that he had read her message. Then she read a reluctant,
She smiled in spite of herself.
As her train approached the station, Lara felt her breathing becoming painful. She couldn’t take it anymore. Any minute she was going to see him. Any minute she’ll be in his arms. Any minute they were going to be one again.
She got down and looked around. He wasn’t there. Four other people got down with her. They seemed to be from Salem because they quickly hauled their bags and were on their way. A young, attractive woman stood a little distance from her. She was looking directly at Lara.
Lara avoided her gaze initially but then realized that the woman was rudely staring. She decided to get out and look for some means of transport. She couldn’t believe her stupidity. She was so confident that Alex would come to pick her that she hadn’t even booked a hotel or a cab. Her heart was breaking in a million pieces and it didn’t help that the woman was now walking alongside her. Lara didn’t want her to see her tears. The shame of a repeat rejection, the fool that she had made of herself, the sorrow of her dissolved marriage and the sense of loss at losing Alex again were combining together to eat at her soul.
As she stepped out of the train station, the woman again was at her heels. As Lara stood trying to figure out how to call a cab she watched the woman lean against a rail, her arms folded.
Lara kept googling names of cab companies and ended up finding one Uber driver in the area. He was to pick her up in her one hour. She couldn’t believe it. She sat at a bench right outside the train station. The woman wasn’t looking at her now. She was staring straight ahead.
Lara became more uncomfortable as time passed on. She developed a weird psychological kinship with the woman. She thought the woman had seen her obviously looking distressed and was may be offering a silent emotional support. Then she thought may be the woman was deranged. Then she thought may be she needed money.
She realized that she couldn’t keep from speaking with her. Her perceptive and curious mind wanted to know why this woman was here. She went up to her.
“I’m a stranger myself here but you look like you’re waiting for someone. Or something else. Can I help you?”
The woman cleared her throat. She had a clear gaze and appeared a number of years younger than Lara. Then she clearly said,
“It’s strange that I’m introducing myself to you when I’ve been chatting with you for about a year in those texts. My name is Melanie and I’m Alex’s widow. Nice to meet you, Lara. I’ve heard so much about you”.
Suddenly the wind started to howl and there were dancing lights in her eyes.
The two women stared at each other. Finally Melanie took her arm and guided her to a car. She helped Lara in, then got in herself and drove.
Lara was shocked and embarrassed. She couldn’t see why Melanie had been chatting with her under false pretenses. She had so many questions but the feeling of embarrassment that she had was the most overwhelming. She felt vulnerable and naked. Some of the more racy and sexual texts came to her mind. She realized Alex never initiated them but also never stopped her. “Not Alex, Melanie”. She reminded herself. She realized she was deliberately not thinking about what Melanie had said about being Alex’s widow. That couldn’t be true. She would’ve known about it. How, her inner voice said. How would you have known?
They reached her home. Lara was in a trance. More than Alex’s death, the fact that she had been chatting with his widow was haunting her. How stupid am I, she wondered.
“Lara, please sit down. There is so much to talk about”.
“No, there isn’t”, Lara said, more angrily than she had intended to. “You hid the fact that Alex is dead and chatted with me like a lover for about a year. There’s nothing to talk. Except an explanation. Can you explain yourself?”
Lara had expected her to show some remorse, act caught or even pretend embarrassment. Instead, she smiled and said,
“I certainly can. Please listen to me before you get more hurt or angry at me. I had never thought that this would lead to this but here we are. Please give me a chance to explain”.
As Lara looked at her, Melanie started,
“Alex and I met shortly after you broke up with him the first time. We weren’t seriously dating but I knew I was the only girl he was dating. When you came back and you two got together again , I had to step aside. You know how hard it is to give up Alex. I was smitten and really wanted to develop some seriousness with him. Instead he told me one fine morning that his ex was getting back with him. It tore my soul but the look on his face was of pure bliss. So that became the saving grace of him leaving me. That at least one of us was happy.
Soon you left him again. This time he promised me that he won’t leave me even if you came back. He was tired and broken from the two breakups. He wanted some stability. More than anything, he wanted another human. He couldn’t be alone.
We started dating. I pressured him for marriage and it was hard. It made everything hard. From a couple who liked each other, we went to becoming sort of enemies. Each time he saw me he was unhappy. Finally I stopped asking him. I decided to move on. When he heard that he told me he couldn’t break up twice in the same year. He had been losing weight and I thought it was because of the stress. I was happy that we could be together and start a life. We got married. The week after Alex was diagnosed with leukemia”.
Lara’s heart broke in a million pieces. So he was really no more. This story was too elaborate to be false. She got up and paced around the room, trying to make sense of her life. Melanie watched her. Lara came back to her place on the couch,
“So he died?”
“He died of infections and failure to thrive. Chemotherapy wasn’t so easy on him either. But can I tell you what I think?”
Lara looked up.
“I think he died of a broken heart”.
Lara broke down. She cried. Melanie came over and handed her a small box. Lara opened it.
Inside were movie ticket stubs, some notes that she had written for him and left around the house when they were together, cigarette stubs that they probably smoked together, a single earring, a scarf and a picture of the two of them at the beach. The beach was Alex’s favorite place. He smelled of it almost all the time. He had wavy blonde hair that looked like he had just come off of his surf board. He had the body of an athlete and the most infectious smile. She wondered why she left him. She loved him and he loved her. Why did she leave him? Then pined for him. Then came to Salem after burning all the bridges with her husband and now here she was, with his widow who seemed to know so much about her, lamenting her loss.
She looked up. Melanie was crying too. She sat next to Lara.
“He said you’d come back and to give this to you when you did. The night you texted was the night he passed away. I was at the funeral home getting last minute details done. It seemed like a sign that you’d text the night he passed away. He talked about you until his death. Frankly I didn’t mind. He was the most animated when he talked about you.
So I started texting with you. I know I shouldn’t have. But I felt like you had become my connection to Alex. Dealing with his death became easier when you came around. You became my salvation from the grief. We never had kids so it was just me and him. And it became lonely when he departed. He was the love of my life, Lara”.
“He was the love of my life too”. Lara thought. “He was the man I loved without inhibition. Someone I watched many suns rise with. Someone who held my hand through bad bosses and stupid corporate policies. Someone who appreciated me for who I am instead of what he would want me to be. He was my person and now he’s gone. All I have now is a ring, given to me by a man I never really cared about that much. Steve loves me but does he love me like Alex did? Probably not!”
She realized she was crying again. She got up and hugged Melanie. The younger woman was shaking slightly. Lara had her sit down and then said,
“I appreciate you chatting with me. I’ll save those texts forever. You helped me know what I want. I wasn’t happy before I started texting you. You made me so happy in the last eleven months. I can’t stop being happy. I can’t believe Alex is no more. He was so vibrant and full of life. I can sense his presence here. May be you can too”.
She walked around, like she was walking on clouds. Without asking Melanie she went upstairs. She could hear Melanie sobbing still. She entered the bigger of the two bedrooms and then immediately knew Alex didn’t use it much. There was a much smaller bedroom right next to the staircase. She went in and immediately sensed his presence. There was his laptop which looked like he had just gotten up from working on it. She went up to it and could see a pen right next to it like he was taking notes. There was a coaster that she knew they had bought together when they were living together. She saw a picture of him and Melanie, at the beach, laughing with the sun behind them. He looked happy and it made her happy. She was grateful for Melanie. She had taken his loneliness away.
She moved to the single bed in the room. It looked slept in. She lay in it. It felt warm and like someone wrapped his arms around her. Someone she had known for ages. Someone who could see the tears in her eyes before she could feel them. Someone who laughed loudly and made her come out of her shell too. She felt Alex embracing her and she initially felt suffocated but then gave herself up to the moment. He started to pull her in deeper and deeper. She surrendered to his persistence. She could never win with him. Why try now?
“I can’t take breaking up with you a third time, Alex. It will kill me”, she whispered. Alex tightened his arms around her.
When Lara didn’t return for about a half hour, Melanie went up to check on her. She wanted to give Lara some time to be by herself. She knew Lara would find Alex’s room and would likely want to spend sometime in it. She looked at Lara and saw her peacefully sleeping. She had never seen a more beautiful woman. Lara had an ethereal beauty that nullified all the smoke, dust and noise of the train station when Melanie first saw her. She was stunned to see Lara finally. She had seen her pictures but hadn’t been prepared for the effect that she had on people. She now understood why Alex was so madly in love with her. He had told her of how intelligent Lara was. That was always his biggest compliment for her. He could talk for hours about Lara solving this problem and that, mastering weird business concepts overnight, how she was the brightest student in the most prestigious business school of the country. Melanie felt jealousy sometimes but with time had developed a reverence to Lara.
Melanie left Lara sleeping. She went to sleep herself.
She woke up early and went to wake up Lara. She looked at her sleeping soundly but felt her lips were blue. She touched her. Lara’s body was stone cold.
The coroner’s report was delivered to Melanie. She had to mail it to Steve. Steve had been at the funeral. He had cried bitterly. He didn’t know about Lara and Alex until he read Lara’s letter. Melanie wondered why. Alex had told her so much about Lara. May be it’s easier to talk to a woman without feeling judged, she concluded.
Out of curiosity she opened the report before mailing it to Steve. She had been mystified about Lara’s death and the truly deadly affect that news of Alex’s death had on her. She knew Lara looked pale when she had gone upstairs but she was a young and healthy woman. Was the shock too much for her?
The report read,
“Cause of death likely stress cardiomyopathy and life-threatening arrhythmia. Also known as broken heart syndrome”.