The thing I remember most about Ash was her hands. They were always animated, flowing through the air like delicate strands of grass. When she talked, it was as if her hands were really the ones telling the story. They moved to the music of her voice, embodied with the spirit of her soul. Even when she was still, they seemed to buzz with excitement, anticipating the next moment they could exhibit their charm. Her hands were the hands of an artist, made to create and astonish the world. Those hands had a way, and she managed to intertwine each graceful finger around my heart.
Before Ash, my life was missing a crucial piece. Ever since I can remember, I have always found it hard to be happy. It seems like such a simple concept to others, but it was a gift that was never bestowed onto me. Sure, I feel happiness. The fleeting kind that exists when a good joke is told and the neurons in your brain momentarily drugs you with endorphins. But for some reason, I only get half the dose that others get. Eventually I realized that happiness wasn’t my only stunted emotion. It was all of them - all of the good ones, at least.
It’s been like this my whole life. I remember one time, I might’ve been around 9 or 10 years old, my mother brought it up. I had just caused yet another fight with my parents. Mom just looked at me, tear filled eyes piercing my unaltered ones, and asked me a question that before then, I tried not to think about.
“Do you even love me? Your father?” I was silenced. Disturbed by the thought, the idea I have for so many years avoided and denied. I was a master at lying to everyone, even myself. Do I even Love? “Because you never show it,” she continued, “You never hug us, or just say the words ‘I love you’. You’re always so closed up, I never know what you’re thinking.” At this point my mother’s voice was choking up, the tears were flowing, and she was looking at me. Searching for anything she could grasp onto that would convince her I was the loving, caring daughter she hoped I was. I remember wishing I could console her. But that desire didn’t exist for any particular reason. I didn’t feel guilty; I didn’t feel sympathy or remorse. I just wanted her to stop staring at me. I just wanted to push this problem down under.
“Of course I do.” I think that was convincing. I used the right amount of firmness, sincerity and pleading in my voice. Lying was the best way to go, it’s the only way I can survive. Pretend to be like everyone else and no one will stare. She must have been satisfied with my response, because she dropped the subject. Or perhaps it was just a loving mother’s denial.
Afterwards, I found myself thinking about the subject. I feel familiarity with others. I feel comfortable with some and uncomfortable with others. I feel at ease with friends and family. However, that was the extent of my feelings towards others. They’re familiar, that’s it. For the longest time, I wanted what I saw others had. I wanted to be happy, to be able to care about my family and friends. More than anything, I wanted to feel so absolutely, undeniably in love with someone. I wanted to feel those phantom emotions everyone else had, feel them course through me and warm me in my darkest days. But eventually, I stopped hoping that things would change, that I’d magically acquire the capacity to feel. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t worthy of such feelings and shortly gave up on that dream. It wasn’t until I met Ash that I thought about my handicapped emotions again.
The day we met, I was lying under the shade of a tree. I don’t remember what I was thinking about, but I remember staring up into the tree branches, lost in thought. The speckles of light that bled between the tree leaves warmed my face. I vaguely recall turning my head to the side and watching an ant crawl up a blade of grass. Perhaps at this point I dozed off - right there in the shade, next to the ant, under the speckles of light - because the next thing I remember was a giant bear of a dog. The beast had wormed its way onto most of my torso; its giant head stared at me expectantly. I stared back. It whined loudly and did that thing that dogs do where they scoot their butts and pull their front paws up in a sort of worming shimmy. It kept doing that until a paw was on either side of my face and its body completely smothered mine - its tail thumping earnestly on my thigh. It was then that I heard her voice for the first time. It was loud and overzealous, grating in my head.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry! Puppy doesn’t usually do that. Let me get him.” A quick snap of her fingers and the dog lumbered off of me and pressed its massive head into her hip. “I’m Ashley, but you can call me Ash. This is Puppy. I know, I know. ‘Why did you name your puppy ‘Puppy’?’ Well I don’t know. I’m so bad at making up my mind. I was going to call him puppy temporarily but then when I finally decided on the name Pickles, he didn’t respond. I guess he just likes Puppy. That’s ok, though. I want him to be happy with his name. Do you come here often? Puppy and I just moved here and love this park! Everyone here is so friendly. What’s your name?”
I remember thinking how irritating this woman was. She just wouldn’t shut up. But then I remembered just as quickly how beautiful she was. Five seconds passed before I realized she stopped talking and was waiting for a response.
“Riley. My name’s Riley.” I remembered how my mom always berated me for mumbling and made an attempt to speak up. I’m pretty sure my voice cracked and I choked a little bit. Thanks, mom. My embarrassing voice crack didn’t seem to faze Ash, though. She stared at me with earnest, wide eyes. They were a beautiful light brown, speckled with green. They were absolutely mesmerizing until I realized she was still staring at me. “What are you looking at? Stop staring at me.” I’m pretty sure this time I spoke fluently with no voice cracks, but I think my tone came off as overly harsh and defensive. But for some reason, this too didn’t seem to faze her.
“Nice to meet you, Riley,” she said, “I wasn’t staring, eye contact is important when having a conversation. You don’t have to be so shy.”
“I’m not shy.” She laughed and I knew that she saw through me already.
Ash had a way with seeing through me; she seemed to immediately know how to make me comfortable around her. She got me to open up and we talked for hours about everything. I learned she moved here to start her art career as a portraitist. I told her I moved here on a whim - to get away from my family. To find a new start, whatever that means. I learned that her favorite color was orange because no one else seemed to like that color and she wanted to give it a chance. She likes chocolate milk and gummy bears, and watches corny Kung Fu movies. At some point, I don’t remember how, this woman managed to chip away at my walls. And by the time the sun started to set, I remember thinking that I wanted to see her again. I guess she wanted to see me again, too, because she kissed me and we exchanged numbers. Then she was walking away; with a big bear Puppy trotting at her heels.
I remember our first date. It was by far the strangest first dates I’d ever been on, but I suppose I don’t have much experience in the matter. She called me first. Her number popped up on my screen, flashing and blaring – demanding to be answered. I remember panicking. What would I say? Should I tell her why I didn’t call first? Because she’s way out of my league, because no one should ever be with me, because I can’t love her so why start something hopeless that’ll lead to heartbreak. I’ve done it all before. I’ve already decided I’m better off alone. I remember thinking all of this, yet still reaching for the phone.
“Hey, Riley? It’s Ash.”
“Oh, hey, what’s up?”
“Nothing much, I got worried when you didn’t call that you lost my number.”
“Oh...yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been. Uh. Busy.”
“That’s alright. So I was wondering if you wanted to come over? I need some help with a project. I’ll make you dinner for your time”
“Oh, sure. What did you need help with?”
“I’ll let you know when you get here. Stop by my house around 7?”
“Sure, I’ll be there.”
“Great, it’s a date!”
I sat there, stunned, listening to the empty dial tone after she hung up. I remained there, numb, in that spot for some time. In my small, one bedroom apartment, on my couch, clutching a phone with no one on the other end to my face until the automated voice told me to hang up and get the hell ready to see the most beautiful girl who’s ever paid you any attention.
I remember Ash’s apartment. It was one expansive room. She had a lofted space that had enough room for a bed and dresser. To the left was a small kitchen, but the majority of the room served as her studio space. Paint was splattered on the floors and walls; canvases were strewn about. Her art was the main attraction - they were stunning. Her paintings of people felt more human and alive than any person you see on the streets. Each face felt real, the eyes had a soul that you could sense. It was unnerving having them all stare at you, some thoughtful, some sad, some angry, and some overjoyed. I remember how I envied those paintings. They weren’t alive, but they looked more alive than I ever have. They felt more than I ever could. I remember wishing they’d stop staring at me.
“Do you like them?” Ash walked back over to where she left me in the main entrance of her apartment, with drinks in hand.
“Yes, they’re amazing.”
“I’m so glad you think so! That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted you here. Other than I needed an excuse to see you again.”
I stared at her, assessing whether or not she was playing with me. “So what did you need help with?”
“I wanted to paint you, if that’s ok with you.”
I was stunned. Why would she want me as a subject in her art? I don’t look like these people. I’m empty inside, less alive than them. I remember not understanding, but at the same time not caring. I found myself just wanting to spend time with her, as much as possible, before she realized I couldn’t give her a life she deserved. “Sure, what do you want me to do?”
Everything was stiff and cold. My fingers and toes felt numb, and my back was beginning to ache from laying in the same position for over an hour. A strip of cloth was all I had for warmth; it draped across my shoulder and cascaded down my breasts. My first time as a model, and I remember vowing, my last time. I was allowed breaks, but only sparingly. When Ash painted, she was an entirely different person - no more carefree, giggly Ash. I watched her eyes travel across my body and her arm moving to the same rhythm, completely focused Ash. Subtle flicks of her wrist flew across the canvas. Her palate was an expanse of colors swirling together and separating.
When she was finished I was allowed to put my clothes back on and see her completed work of art. I was astonished, to say the least. I looked real, looked more alive than I’d ever felt. The painted image looked wistful, large eyes staring off into the distance; longing for something so much it almost looked pained. At the same time, her expression looked guarded – wary of anyone looking at her. In just one painting, Ash managed to completely expose me. This woman saw me more than I saw myself. I remember her paint-smeared hands wrapping delicately around mine. I remember her pulling me towards her. I was numb in bewilderment, staring at the ghost of myself as I allowed Ash to hold me.
“It’s ok, everything will be ok,” she said. Ok? I thought, never in my life have I felt ok. Yet that’s all I’ve ever wanted, and after just meeting me – Ash told me the words I’ve always wanted to hear. She brushed my long dark hair away from my face and cupped her hands around my cheeks, looking into my eyes. “You’re more beautiful than you know. So, please, stop punishing yourself. Ok?”
That night, Ash and I laid together all night with a large bear dog sprawled out in-between us. We spent the night talking, just that. I remember thinking how I’d never spent so much time talking to someone else. But that’s what we did; we talked for hours. She even got me to talk about myself. She told me she didn’t care when I said that I couldn’t love. She said that I was lying to myself if I really believed that. She said that I just loved differently, that my love was even more special because it’s given away sparingly. Eventually we fell asleep, and as I dozed off, I could feel her soft hands wrap around mine. I remember that night, it was the first night I felt something inside of me. I was happy.
We dated for years after that. I remember how completely drunk in love I was with that woman. We spent our years together doing nothing but having fun. We would both work for a bit, save just enough money, and then leave everything to travel. We started with seeing all 50 states. I took odd jobs around the country, and Ash sold her art. We passed through every tourist attraction, and every hidden gem. We saw beautiful countryside’s and amazing skylines. At night, we would camp out and watch the stars. We took puppy along with us, and at the ripe old age of 11, he had successfully peed and shit in all 50 states. I know he was proud of that, what more could a giant old goober of a dog want in life?
I still remember Ash; I remember her tender hands wrapped around mine. I remember her amazing laugh, and how if I was clever enough I could get her to snort and it was the cutest little laugh snort ever. I would be so proud that I was the reason for such an honest and heartfelt laugh. I remember her eyes, and how they were always looking at me - always listening and paying attention. I still think about her every day. Even after the accident.
I can still feel her hands, now shaking, clutching mine. I can’t hear her laugh any more; I only hear cries. I can feel her hair, tickling my face. I can hear the heart monitor and the machines, pumping life into me. I want nothing more than to hold her, to wipe away her tears. I want nothing more than to tell her it’s ok, that I’m ok. That it was worth it, every second was worth the time I got to spend with her. I want to tell her I’m ok with death, that I’m finally happy. I want to tell her not to wait for me, to move one. I won’t be waking up.
The thing I remember most about Ash, is her hands. I can feel them now, brushing over my face, fussing over the sheets on the hospital bed.