There is this shirt I've owned for a number of years. I'm not sure when I bought it or why. It isn't anything like any of the shirts that fill my closet. It doesn't look like the kind of shirt I would wear.
The shirt is purple and I think it came out of a catalog for hunters, fishermen and wilderness survival types. I'm not sure this shirt makes any sense. It seems rather odd that it would be purple. What kind of man goes off into the woods with a rifle over one shoulder and a fishing pole over the other while wearing a purple shirt?
I used to wear it during the winter when I worked for the post office. It was comfortable and somehow fit in with the atmosphere surrounding that job.
Then I moved to Florida and it ended up somewhere in the back of my closet with some of the shirts I used to call "the emergency flannels." You know, just in case it got really cold out and I had to scrape ice off my windshield again.
When Christina introduced herself to me for the first time, I was wearing the purple shirt. I don't know why I was wearing it. This isn't that surprising, given that I don't know why I bought it in the first place, but there I was sitting at this bar wearing this damned purple shirt meant for someone who sits in a tree and waits for deer to happen by.
And then a deer happened by.
I had been a regular patron of the restaurant she worked at for more than a year and I had never met her before. At first I thought she was new, and given that turnover amongst waitresses is fairly high, this conclusion was not much of a leap. She corrected me. She had always been there, and while I never noticed her, she had always been quietly watching me.
The words she chose to use as an excuse to begin a conversation with me were "I really like that shirt. Purple is my favorite color."
I think I told her I thought the shirt was ridiculous and couldn't figure out why I was wearing it. She laughed.
She was five feet tall with long blonde hair, big doe eyes and a crooked little smile that hinted at dangerous mischief. She had been watching me for months, amused by my fixation on Tina the bartender, who turned aside all my efforts to convince her to extend our relationship beyond that of bartender and babbling drunk.
"I know most of your story," she told me, "so I know why you're so obsessed with Tina, but don't you ever get the feeling you are wasting your time trying to get her to go out with you?"
"I've been known to get that feeling."
"I wouldn't say no," she said with a wink, picking up a tray of drinks and slipping back to the dining room.
I thought about it for a long time, looking back and forth between Tina and Christina. Part of me knew Tina was never meant to be what someone might label a "girlfriend." Part of me knew I was driving myself crazy trying to force our relationship in that direction. I was still uncertain as to what it all meant, and why this woman had appeared in my dreams, but in the end I decided I needed to get past my tunnel vision.
In the dreams there is a card dealer. I sit across a table from him while he deals me a series of three cards. He flips the first card over. It is the Queen of Diamonds, which always stays just out of my reach, no matter what I do to pick it up. Then he flips over the Queen of Clubs, a card I can pick up with ease, but which bursts into flames and burns my hand, forcing me to drop it. The final card is the Queen of Hearts, which jumps into my hand, heals my wound and then disappears completely.
"Play out the hand and you will have what you need to understand."
Christina was the second card. The second queen.
It never quite worked. We were no more meant to be a "couple" than Tina and I were. It just wasn't how things were meant to be between us, but that didn't make me love her any less. The more I got to know her, the more I learned about myself. We were each other's teacher and each other's student.
"I sometimes dream of a child," she told me. "She is a beautiful little girl with blue eyes and blonde hair."
The more she described the child, the more she sounded like the visions of my angel, Anastasia. And then she told me more.
"When I was five years old they found out I had cancer. I went through chemotherapy and all that shit when I was supposed to be just a little girl. I lost all my hair and then I died. They declared me dead and gave up on me and then I just started breathing again. I lived and the cancer went away. They tell me it is completely gone now, but I don't believe them."
"Why not? If it is gone..."
"Down at the bar they call you the dead guy. Everyone knows your story and they all believe you, but no one ever believes me. They think I'm making it up. Do you know why I always talk about wanting to have a big house with a swimming pool, take first class trips all over the world and have all these material things in my life? Because I'll never have them. I won't live to be thirty. No one else can understand this, but I think you can."
"I believe you. I could never doubt anyone who knows they died and then returned because I know what it feels like. I don't believe you're going to die before you're thirty. You'll be around long after I'm gone."
"You'll outlive me easily, Keith."
We were sitting in the front seat of her truck, parked outside the restaurant she worked in, the restaurant I call my church, and we both just looked up at the sky and sat in silence. I could feel truth in her words, just as I could feel we were being torn apart. Our time together in shared intimacy was reaching a conclusion and it was time to move forward. I received a message from my angel. If I wanted to die, I could have died at that moment. "Otherwise the time to come is going to hurt like fucking hell."
And it did. Everything fell apart. The money ran out. The engine blew in my car. I lost my job. Christina told me she couldn't see me any longer because my mounting problems were too much for her and she had her own weight. The clock was running on her life and she had to make the best of the time she had left.
Christina's parents spoiled her to the point where they had very little for themselves, but she had stopped fighting them over it years before. She was their only daughter, although not their first effort at a child. The others had not survived childbirth. She was their blessing, and then she was taken from them when she was only five years old, only to return to them again. They could never take her for granted and they could never live with themselves if they did not count every day she was alive as one to be cherished.
The chemotherapy had left Christina without hair through much of grammar school. She usually wore a wig, which the other kids would take great pleasure in pulling off her head so they could taunt the "cancer kid." She ate to combat her growing depression and turned into "the fat cancer kid." She had no friends. She was placed in a Catholic school where she became especially attached to a certain nun, who later died of cancer herself after promising Christina, "We will see each other again." Christina had no friends growing up, just an expanding collection of stuffed animals, toys and imaginary friends she had tea parties with.
Then, after graduating from high school, she went on a campaign to lose all the extra weight she'd grown to hate, grew her blonde hair long and styled it to hide how thin it really was. She decided she was done hiding in her room and feeling sorry for herself. She started experimenting with make-up, wearing sexy clothes and radiating a strong, defiant attitude.
And I wondered why she couldn't handle standing by me when my life was perilously close to sliding into the gutter with no deposit, no return.
A few weeks after our romance ended, we sat across each other in a booth at her workplace. Christina looked heartbroken to see me in such despair. Sitting next to me was another waitress who was holding my hand under the table while Christina told me, "She can help you much more than I can right now."
In the scheme of things, she was right. Tammy had the experience and life history, and the faith in me, to guide me out of desperation and put me back on my horse. Christina knew she could only make things worse because I would have broken my back trying to make her happy when that was something no one could do. Her parents had tried for years.
We saw each other a year later, when my life had come back together again and hers seemed to radiate new hope. She had changed her focus and was taking courses in criminal justice and psychology. She wanted to pursue a career working with teenagers who were in trouble with the law, who came from abusive families, were victims of neglect, or had dived too hard into the world of drugs and alcohol.
"The other day these two guys I used to know in high school came into the restaurant. I recognized them, but they didn't recognize me. They used to tease me and pick on me and make fun of me and now one of them was hitting on me and trying to convince me to go out with him. So I asked them if they knew who I was. They had no idea who I was."
"What did you tell them?"
"I told them I was the fucking cancer kid and they could go fuck themselves."
We kissed and made up that day, and somehow we both seemed to know we would never see each other again, at least in this life.
"We'll see each other again," we both said simultaneously.
Those words mean something to me.
She planned her funeral down to the last detail. She had known for years it was coming, but when the doctors found the cancer had come back, just as she knew it would, the clock started ticking with more authority. They did what they could, but the cancer would not surrender. I was told they were just as baffled by the strength and depth of its return as they were by the quickness with which it had disappeared twenty years earlier.
It wasn't possible. She was twenty-five years old.
There was only one person, outside of her family, that Christina allowed to visit her in the hospital. She did not want anyone to see her in her declining condition. It brought back too many painful memories of those school children staring and laughing at the "cancer kid." She made a list of people who were to be told when she died by programming them all into her cell phone. When she died, her closest friend Erin called everyone, on Christina's cell phone, and told them she was gone from this world.
At her wake she was surrounded in her coffin by the stuffed animals who had been her only childhood friends. She arranged to have "Copacabana" sung by Barry Manilow playing while we spoke our farewells to her. She had that mischievous grin on her face because she knew how difficult she was making it for us to remain serious. She didn't want us to cry. She wanted us to be reminded of the absurdity of it all.
The funeral was a different story. As the priest she had known since she was a baby delivered his eulogy, he broke down in tears telling the story of the nun Christina had been so attached to in her youth. She was waiting for Christina, to be joined together with the angels, and as devoted as that nun had been to Christina in life, her devotion would be deeper now. She would not be alone. Sunlight came bursting through the windows behind us and illuminated the pulpit. That did the priest in.
"And the sky will turn to gold." It did me in as well, but I did not cry. Instead I saw a vision of Christina running through a field of purple flowers laughing and looking as beautiful as she always knew she was.
"How's my funeral going, sweetie?"
"Aren't you at it?"
"No, I'm a little too busy right now, but thanks for coming. I knew you would."
A quick wink and a playful smile. She ran faster and soon was out of view.
Erin was speaking now, delivering a personal eulogy for her best friend. Two people were holding her up as she spoke, but it was hard to make out what she wanted to say. I've been to many funerals, but this was one funeral where it seemed the dearly departed had a better chance of surviving than the supporting cast.
I didn't follow everyone else to the cemetery, where Christina was to be buried above-ground because of her oft-stated fear of being eaten by maggots.
I just needed to be alone, to remember her. Most of these people were people I did not know. I was an outsider, the brash and crazy long-haired dude who once, in another time and another place, was her lover. She spoke to me for the entire ride back to my apartment. I'm not sure I remember most of what she was telling me, but I do remember one part of that conversation.
"She'll come back to you, you know."
"Who?" I asked.
"That love of your life you told me about, the one who disappeared. She's coming back and she really does love you."
"How do you know that?"
"I was right about dying before I turned thirty, so are you really going to doubt me now? Besides, I always did believe in that kind of love."
"What kind of love?"
"The kind that lasts forever no matter what happens."
A week or two passed and I went back to the restaurant I call my church. Erin was working behind the bar, and she was anxious to speak to me. She wanted to tell me something she thought only I could understand. Christina had appeared to her in dreams, telling her she was happy and not to worry about her. First she told Erin, "Why are you crying? I'm not dead." Then she told her there was no longer any pain, any sorrow or regret where she was and to stop being sad over her departure.
I told Erin about my visions and we talked for a while as I sipped my beer, and when I left she smiled and said, "We'll see each other again."
We haven't seen each other since, but that isn't what she meant.
Just before I left Florida to return to New Hampshire and be reunited with the love of my life, I went to Christina's grave for the first time. When I set out to find it, I walked past it several times, oblivious to the pile of purple flowers, the can of her favorite soft drink, Dr. Pepper, and all the cards and gifts sitting in front of the drawer that contained her remains.
"Yeah, well, you walked past me seven hundred times without finding me in life, so I guess I should have expected this." Always the smile. Always the laughter.
"Why didn't you wear the purple shirt? You know, my favorite. That was the least you could have done since you didn't think to bring any flowers."
"I thought I gave it to you before we broke up."
"It's in your closet. Go back and look."
"I'll love you forever, Christina, no matter what."
"Yeah, I know. The feeling is mutual, sweetie."
October 6, 2005
Time passed and I found myself working in a shelter for troubled teen girls. I was running late and quickly grabbed a shirt out of the closet. I bought a can of soda because I was thirsty. I absently flipped the tuner on the radio and found Barry Manilow singing "Copacabana."
I didn't put it all together until later that night when I went outside for a cigarette and realized I was wearing the purple shirt, drinking Dr. Pepper and working with the kind of girls Christina sought to help.
Love is a funny thing.
So is life.
We'll see each other again.