Chapter 1. Heart Paper

“He was prolific.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. Many, abundant?” I know she knows what prolific means. What is she digging for?

“I think you might be mixing up words. But no worry, continue.”

I nearly flipped. I know words. If anything, that’s what I know. Or rather they knew me. They’d been suffocating me for years, twirling around my head, making new words, making new shapes, making complex connections, making me sick. I have these vague memories of when I was five or six, mom used to say “don’t listen to them baby. If you wrote them down, they’d make a scary picture.” So instead I’d developed a practice: good words get writ, bad words remit. It works okay, but…no ones perfect anyway.

Good news was I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. Not anymore. My dreams had literally come true because he was mine, betrothed, my husband of a year and we were still in newlywed bliss. I didn’t know it then but looking back I think he was always what I’d wanted, what I’d been looking for. Systems work to a point, but I’m not systematic; certainly my emotions aren’t. So what I needed was a real permutation of my chemical makeup, something that could hit on heart level and atomize the issues to mere letters, floating letters, non-threatening A’s and B’s. He did that for me, gave me his hand and took away my science, fecundating me with new reasons of happiness. And he’d been doing it multiple times, over the course of a good couple decades, you know, prolifically.

“Would you prefer the chronological version? Or just start somewhere?”

“That’s really up to you. I’ll listen.”

I usually like to talk in order, helps keep my focus. So maybe it’s best I jump around. Go against the grain and make all of us a bit uncomfortable. Can I do that? I won’t get mixed up? I thought about it for a second and knew I had to tell her about the New York subway bit. That one was most romantic and epic, total movie stuff. She would never doubt if she knew that story. Yes, I’ll start there, we’ll get to all of it eventually.

“So I’d been in New York City for around three years, intermittently because I’d spent a semester of college abroad in Spain, which I’ll get to as well because there’s lots of juicy Spanish scoops, but yeah so I had gotten really into this Zumba class. The teacher was hilarious, she was Columbian and had this thick Sophia Vergara accent and when we were sweating hard or we all raised our hands together at the same time she’d yell out: ‘Ayyyyy mamiiiiii, me encaaaanta!’ If I squinted I could pretend we were in Britney Spears’ Toxic music video, you know, sexy, sweaty, tan bodies writhing around to a beat.”

“I think you told me this one. You met on the train, he followed you-”

“No this one’s different. We didn’t meet on the train. This one is definitely different. I haven’t told you this one.” Why did I suddenly feel panicked? She doesn’t believe me. I don’t think she even really likes me much. I didn’t do anything to her! Why is she being such a bi-STOP. Good girls get writ, bad girls remit.

“I must be mistaken. Continue.”

Now she’s just soft-pedaling. I wonder if she heard. I’m gonna keep going. This is for me anyway, and if I can get through, I’ll get to relive that memory. Feel the way my heart was pounding, how he looked at me.

“I’d just finished class so I was sweaty, my hair was messy and back in a ponytail. I used to wear black leggings to class; you couldn’t see the sweat stains as bad in black. I’d change my shirt, throw on a sweater, and put my slouchy boots on, so when I got outside I could be acceptably dressed for the Lower East Side.

I think that was when I was really into the Smiths. Or maybe it was Belle and Sebastian. I’d always have my headphones with me so I could play the soundtrack to my life. Best way to experience New York, locked away into yourself, listening to music, watching people like they’re behind the glass. Sonic divisions and psychic distances, I was in my head but the words wouldn’t frighten me when they were hidden in melody. So I’d just move to the sounds and watch the play around me unfold. One of my doctors said that was anti-social. Do you think it’s anti-social?”

“What do you think?”

“Nah, I mean, everyone is like that.”

“Not everyone has your, um, issue.”

“Not entirely true. I think everyone has it to a certain degree, I’m just abnormally affected. Or maybe I should say, I listen, while others ignore. They got the ignore gene, I never got that. I’m getting diverted. Let me go back. Post-zumba, sitting on the F train, headphones playing The Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. If I was still enough, I could pretend I was invisible there. But I wasn’t because he was looking at me.

He wasn’t staring or anything creepy. I would have noticed if that were the case. He would look up, as though lost in his thoughts, I was behind his glass screen. He had a pen and paper, maybe a notebook, I don’t remember, but he was writing. I think he had headphones too. He had dark hair, lighter skin, his hair was parted to the side. He wore a lot of black. He may have even been wearing a leather jacket, or a denim jacket, definitely slim black jeans. I wasn’t paying much attention to him other than I did notice him, let my words define a role for him in my subwayscape, and then relegate that role to extra. No speaking part if it were up to me.

I did notice we both got off the train at 2nd ave. And it did seem like he was following me. I brushed it off as incidental. Two young folk in vintage clothing walking along Houston down to Allen. I walked faster. He was still behind me. I don’t know why I kept speeding up. If he wasn’t following me, and I was sure he was not, why did I try to hard to get away from him?”

“Your-“ “That was rhetorical.” Duh! I wasn’t asking your opinion. But really, why was I practically speed walking? It would have made more sense to slow down and let him pass. I remember being nearly out of breath. My cheeks were flush from the dried sweat getting frosted up by some early winter breeze. The blood was flowing something fierce, my legs, my cheeks, my heartbeat, walk faster.

“We came to a crosswalk and it was red. Cars were coming so I had to stop my mini-marathon. I heard him say: ‘Excuse me?’ I looked around, no one but us on a New York City sidewalk. Impossible. ‘Yes?’ I said. He apologized and simply said he had to give me this, and then held out his hand with a tiny piece of ripped lined paper, the corner of a notebook. It was folded in half. I took the paper and opened it. Inside was some chicken scrap handwriting with the words: ‘Do you realize

That you have the most beautiful face?’

Everything froze for a second, my head actually stopped. The words, they stopped, can you believe it? The words literally left my mind. I think they call it speechless. I call it wordless. Or bliss.

He explained himself: ‘I was listening to the Flaming Lips and I saw you. I felt like I had to give this to you. You know that song, Do You Realize? I was listening to it and singing along and I saw you. Anyway, that’s it, sorry.’ He was nervous, and I was frozen, in total bliss. I could tell his confessional was coming to an end, and I didn’t want it to stop. Every word he spoke was like a word leaving me, a truce between me and them, him a valiant knight cutting them down. I tried to conjure good words. Good words for him. I smiled and asked him his name. He said something generic, I don’t remember.”

“Are you sure you don’t remember his name? Last time you told the story you said it was Keanu.”

“I TOLD you, I never shared this one before. I was going to say he said his name but I forgot it at the time. It was Keanu. That’s what he said. I just thought I’d palliate the intensity. I can feel the moment if I close my eyes. I can feel him then. I said I should at least get his number. I had him write it on the paper under his name. I did it just to keep him there, keep him talking but he’d stopped. I’d made him uncomfortable I think. I knew I wasn’t going to call him. What would I have said anyway? Talk to me like you did, it’s like medicine. Besides, nothing could beat that moment, he’d broken the glass between us, now we had to pick up the shards and move on I guess. “

I finally took a breath.

“I was living with two roommates at the time. I rushed home and shared the story. I felt like a giddy schoolgirl.”

“You mean you never called him?”

“No. That’s not to say I didn’t consider it. I did consider it, many times. But the longer I waited, the more pointless it seemed. The moment was so perfect, I didn’t think I could get that feeling again. I guess I was scared, to be vulnerable, to be open, to be without words.

But I kept that paper with me all the time. It had its own special fold in my wallet, and comfortably lived there as a reminder of that totally delicious, fragrant perfect mindless moment.”

“That’s rather poetic. Do you have it with you now?”

“Someone stole my wallet seven years ago in Argentina. They got leather, plastic, and my heart paper. Oh well. Paper can’t last anyway. Although most journals now are acid free so maybe that baby would’ve stood the test of time. I feel like singing now, don’t you? Dooo you realize???”

“I think that’s enough for today. I’m going to write up some notes. Are you hungry? It’s almost 6pm.”

I couldn’t answer really. More words. Funny thing was I don’t think Flaming Lips song is all that romantic anyway. Have you listened to the lyrics? Floating in space, everyone you know someday will die, it’s hard to make the good things last. Maybe that’s why he had to run. Beat the illusion of the setting sun.

She’d already left by then. More words started to circle around me. She could probably see and left me in my privacy. I made my way out to see the stars. Floating in space. How did he know?

Like what you read? Give Leila Wu a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.