Short Story: Walking Away

Walking Away

by Richard R. Barron

Goodbye is a good cry.

There is something about the turn of autumn that hurts us inside. It’s an insane time, when anyone with any artistic or poetic heart feels a sense of loss, or remembrance, or hunger. The hunger is this: when the primary weave of our lives becomes the cold, we hunger for what warms us inside and out, the affections of another.

I spent the autumns and winters of my youth hungering for her, wanting to be in that place, the physical place of being wrapped around her, holding her, smelling her hair that is soft and cool in the evening air, touching her hands. And all the while the moments in that place are only made meaningful by her hunger to be in that place with me.

That night I felt it again. I was walking away. Just moments before, standing behind Michelle, I put my arms around her shoulders, around all of her. She raised her arms and put her soft, white hands in mine. I squeezed them a little, and at the same time laid my head on hers.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

I paused, and thought, “I love you.”

“I like this,” I said, and started to sway back and forth.

“I never liked being rocked as a baby,” she said, so I stopped rocking her.

Now I was fifteen steps out of her door, walking away from love, since, it occurred to me suddenly, it was walking away from me again. I resisted the urge to look in her window, but felt almost certain that she was looking at me, and as I felt watched and onstage, it seemed as if I had forgotten how to walk and was trying it for the first time.

I got to the street, looked both ways, and crossed, trying to look as casual as I could. Somehow I had to save the face of the embarrassment of failing again at love. I couldn’t let her see how much I wanted to run away from the pain swelling inside me. I took a deep, deep breath. Was I shaking?

It’s funny. Five years earlier, ten years earlier, fifteen years earlier, it was the same walk. It feels like my body isn’t even along with me. Everything seems completely different suddenly. Even if I was expecting it, even if I saw it coming, the reality of walking away was not of me, not of my routine.

On a summer evening five years before this night, saying goodbye to Pam, that moment came again. Full of hurt and hunger, in this moment I was about to go from the touch of her hands to the lonely warm air of another night. I stepped back and let her willowy arms slide out of my hands, then turned around and looked at the stairs to my apartment, no different than the first or last time I climbed them.

Two years before that found me outside a dorm room at a college not far from my home. Lisa was moving back to the east coast. I’d never even bothered to confess my feelings to her. I knew it wouldn’t have helped.

She stood before me in the parking lot at just after six o’clock. It was a still December night, and the early sunset was a cold blue. She wore a red cotton sweater that was mine until I decided it didn’t fit.

I don’t remember what we said. Goodbye, I guess. She didn’t like to be hugged, but I broke her of that just in time for her to leave. She hugged me, then I her, then I knew it was time to turn around and walk away. I’d gotten pretty good at walking backwards for a few steps, giving her the chance to turn around first, and this time it worked. I got to watch her walk awkwardly away before I turned around and walked awkwardly away in the opposite direction. It wasn’t a long walk, but it was long enough.

In 1994 it was another walk. She was there to stay; we had just buried Kathy after she shot herself to death. The walk away from the grave on that sunny winter day was different than the others, but it was still a walk away, still awkward, still taking me away from love.

I never thought of turning around, though.

She loved me.

When I was sixteen, I was visiting Melissa at her home in Missouri after her family moved her away a year earlier. She wasn’t my girlfriend, but I wanted her to be. I was feeling very sad that she and I were parting, and she was feeling very homesick.

“Can I go with you?” she half-joked, and the thought stirred her to tears.

“Sure,” I said, and held out my arms. The sensation of having her so close to me was as pure a feeling as I’d ever had, and in ten seconds it was over. Nothing was even remotely the same after that. My only thought was desire to be close to her again, to be in that moment of perfect peace and freedom, wordless and unlonely.

Yet there she was, walking away with tears in her eyes, and for me was only the task of getting in my car and driving away, which seemed to take forever and felt totally alien in every way.

When Tina and I said goodbye, I was nineteen. In her darkened room, we sat on the edge of her dormitory bed.

“What is it?” I asked her once, then again in the consuming quiet of her room.

She lowered her head, and tears spilled down her cheeks. “Here,” she whispered, “is your promise ring.”

“Why don’t you keep it,” I told her, followed by, “I’m going to go,” after another awkward silence. I turned and walked to her door, opened it with wooden gracelessness, and slipped into the even darker hallway and down the stairs. Finally at the bottom of the stairs appeared the night, and I let it swallow me up. Even under the cover of darkness, I felt certain her eyes were still on me somehow.

Last night it was the same, walking away in the occult gloom of night, and suddenly I knew, just as Michelle’s apartment slipped out of view, why this walk away from love surrendered all of it’s grace and left me so desperately, pathetically awkward: I was carrying the weight of the loss squarely on my back. It was a weight I wanted no one to see me carrying, a weight that held defeat at its core. At last she could no longer see me, and I slowed, no longer hurrying to disappear into the blackness. I breathed out, looked down. The weight was suddenly lifted, and replaced by a much more familiar emptiness.

I smiled.

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