I knew just from the wild look in her eyes that she had made her decision, and that things would never be the same. Tara kissed my forehead. Her lips left a warmth that froze as soon as she uttered the words, “Goodbye, Adam.”
She turned away from me and looked out to the open sky before us, looked to the violent ground below, and she jumped.
No scream trailed Tara, nor did I expect it to. As always she defined elegance, even rocketing toward the ground. Her farewell dress was crimson, sleek, and whipping in the updraft. Her gold ropes of hair danced in the wind. Tattoos on the bottoms of her feet spelled the word “ice” in eighteen different languages. She once told me it never mattered where she planted her feet, she was, like ice, incapable of growing roots, and so she kept slipping away, like ice.
I didn’t try to stop her. I thought about saying something the entire time we climbed, but the words ripping through my insides never escaped. Tara’s choices were always her own. No sentiments from me would have changed a thing.
“These are our last minutes together, Adam,” Tara said. “Get out of your head. Live the rest of our time together fully, or you’ll always regret it.”
I knew she was right, but knowing the problem and fixing it rarely coincide when it comes to issues of the mind. And yes, I still regret it.
I should have realized when we met that knowing her would someday mean knowing loss. I crouched among cattails carefully angling my camera toward one of nature’s many miracles – the formation of a butterfly, its blazing orange wings etched with black and curled gently behind the transparent shroud of its chrysalis.
Eyes and thoughts focused sharply through my viewfinder, a sudden voice startled me. Knocked off balance, I lost my shot of the caterpillar’s transformation but, unbeknownst to me at the time, began a metamorphosis of my own. She said, “I’m Tara. I want us to have known each other.”
“To have known” – past tense. It seemed foreboding, but the contrast of her canary sundress against her cocoa skin and the blinking of her breathy eyelashes flooded me with an excitement too bold to ignore.
I don’t quite remember how we got from the cattails to a railroad bridge, sipping wine, to skinny dipping in a creek to making love in the dirt. Her lulling words wafted between the folds of my brain and blurred the entire day into one long spell – the whisper of a sorceress, and I woke the next morning not remembering much of what we had talked about, but adamant that I must speak to her again and again and…
And I had no way to contact her. She didn’t have a phone number, and she hadn’t wanted mine. I offered to walk her home, but she laughed and instead walked me home.
After Tara left me that night I began to wonder if her only intention had been a one night stand. She had, after all, referred to us in the past tense. I told myself to be thankful for the thrilling experience and move on, but the next day I retraced our journey.
I returned to the reeds. The chrysalis was gone. Unphotographed. Its temporary beauty still existed as a memory, but memories are never as magical as the moments that leave them behind.
I walked to the bridge. An empty bottle of Malbec lay settled in the crack between two railroad ties. I lifted it, held the rim to my nose, and inhaled its sweet remnants. The smell transported me to the nape of Tara’s neck. I still think of her skin when I drink wine, but the lush, sexy beverage is now so emotionally potent I rarely find the courage to uncork it.
Through the rusted trusses of the bridge I watched the gentle slide of the creek down which Tara and I had floated in the nude. I walked along its bank until I arrived beneath the weeping willow where our love had swished and swept the dirt. I lifted a handful of the soft powder, and it slipped between my fingers just as easily as Tara had. All that remained of her were these details we had created together.
During the walk home my sadness grew as I realized the evening had not been as meaningful to her as it was to me. Eyes pointed at the sidewalk, it wasn’t until I pushed open my front door that I noticed the paper taped to it. Permanent marker bled through the fringed notebook page in dots and dashes. I removed the paper and flipped it over.
It read: I was here. You weren’t. XOXO
For a week after that I only left my house when I had to go to work, because I was scared to miss her again. I didn’t sleep well. I lay awake contemplating the way Tara had left me drifting through such a strange, lonely anxiety with nothing but a simple note. I thought at times that I hated her for doing that to me, but I knew it couldn’t be hate, because when I saw a flicker in my peripheral as I stood at my window and watched the sidewalk my heart raced with the excitement that it might be her, and when it wasn’t disappointment filled the void. Perhaps I just hated myself for being so dependent on a woman I had only known for a day.
I’m not sure if Tara had intended to teach me a lesson, but as I lay staring at the spinning fan on my bedroom ceiling I realized I had missed my chance to be with her in the present because I was out wandering through our past.
It wasn’t until I left for work the following Monday that I heard from her again. I opened my front door to find another markered piece of paper.
It read: I was here. So were you. Go away. When was the last time you photographed something? XOXO
Her message this time was clear – don’t wait for life to come to you. So I didn’t. I called my boss and told him I was ill. I grabbed my camera and aimlessly walked. For hours I snapped pictures of whatever presented itself to me, wooden barrels outside an antique shop, a beagle sniffing my camera through a chain-link fence, a robin perched on the dowel of a birdhouse. I didn’t concern myself with angles, lighting, or composition. I simply enjoyed the hidden beauties of our modest city, giddy at the thought that Tara might be following with growing approval, never dumb enough to look for her over my shoulder because such eagerness would go against her free-floating philosophies.
Not far from the cattails where it had all started I saw a monarch butterfly resting on a park bench. Its wings pushed open and drew closed as if they were a vibrant pair of lungs. I inched nearer wondering if it was the same butterfly I had seen in its chrysalis when I met Tara – what a charming poem of fate that would be.
I lifted the camera to my eye, twisted the lens into focus, and heard Tara say, “I want you to have photographed me.”
Past tense again.
And again I missed my shot of the butterfly.
I followed Tara through the city to a song of shutter snaps. She was my Heidi Klum. I was her Oliver Gast. She disappeared behind bushes, bathroom doors, and into alleyways then reappeared in different outfits. I photographed her in a full rainbow of dresses, complete with boas or heels or hats, but classy glamour was not her only talent; she burst from the broom closet of an ice cream shop in leather pants, a low-cut blouse, and polished, stiletto, knee-high boots.
All day we continued this way. I didn’t need to say anything. Tara knew everything she wanted, every pose, every location; she modeled relaxation while laying in the grass, approachability sitting on the steps of an old porch, innocence on a playground swing, whimsy on a merry-go-round, thoughtfulness through the window of a coffee shop, sexiness in a short skirt pressed tightly against a building.
The city was ours that day. The world was ours.
She led me to a lake. She raised a pecan colored hat from her head with a hand on each side of its wavy brim. A few strands of her hair lifted with it, and they glowed in the sunlight like clear electrified wire. She hung the hat on the branch of a tree, extended her palm toward the camera, and asked, “Can I see?”
I handed her the camera. She removed the memory card and threw it into the lake. I would have collapsed in agony had she not grabbed me and kissed me with such intensity that the pictures no longer mattered nor did anything else.
And in that kiss, again, the world was ours, and when we took off our clothes, the universe.
Though the fiercest fire blazed between us, the ice on Tara’s feet never melted.
I still remember the neutrality in her face when I opened my front door the day that she jumped. I smiled. She didn’t. She didn’t frown either. She simply said, “It’s time for me to go, Adam. Take my hand.”
She said I wasn’t like the others, and I had earned this special goodbye. I didn’t understand what that meant. I still don’t. If I was so special why didn’t she stay? The whole way up I wanted to beg her not to do it, but I just stared at her through the tears in my eyes, aware there was no convincing Tara against something she had already decided.
The feel of those lips on my forehead – the lips that have touched me so many times, yet not nearly enough. “Goodbye, Adam,” she said, and then she turned and threw herself through the open door.
The buzz of the airplane’s engine vibrated back and forth between my eardrums. She pulled the ripcord, and the white plume of her parachute exploded outward. The distance between us grew. I thought about what she had said to me – “Let the wind of my life take me where it will.”
Though I know Tara would disapprove, I sometimes stare at an empty picture frame on my coffee table. I try to imagine it enlivened with one of the photos I took of her, and I loathe myself for not asking her to stay.
Maybe that’s what she wanted – someone strong enough to break through her mysterious barrier, someone bold enough to ask her not to go.
But I missed my chance, and I’ll die not knowing if I even had one. So I stand from the couch and go searching for butterflies.