This story is by H.M. Dillard and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sometimes Mayra is a soldier. Like one of those soldiers that you read about in novels. Maybe not with a feather in the cap, but with the chainmail, face-concealing helmets, and crazy fancy swords. She endures this armor, prepared to fight, and uses it to guard herself against the inevitability of change. She needs to make sure that the world around her doesn’t change enough to throw everything out of whack. This armor is secure. The routine is safe.
Ages ago in a “Who knows what prompted this!” moment, she stepped towards online dating because of her friend, Linds. “C’mon, it’ll be fun! Oh, look at this picture; he’s cute!” That night Myra sent a message to this cute guy, and before she knew it, “It’s a date!” He seemed nice enough, and from their couple of days together, he was interesting. Better yet, he was interested in her. The immediate complication was long-distance. Still, she thought this was just the adventure she was looking for. “I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m going to risk it. Besides, there is safety in distance, right?” It meant that she could easily push him away if things got tough. “Keep it on my own terms.” This fit perfectly within the outline of her armor. They emailed initially, followed by occasional texting, complete with emoji expressions. “It’s been a brutal day! :O” or “I can’t believe how much I cried when my sister graduated! :’( “ This suited her just fine. Silly memes were passed back and forth, such as “Coffee first” and a picture of a cat with a giant mug of coffee. “At least he knows what he is getting into, right?”
Texting turned into an occasional phone call, difficult because of two different time zones. Mayra stretched her creative thinking with the busy work schedules, prompting midnight chats or mailing an occasional package. While they delved more into each other’s personal lives beyond just cold pizza, biking, and sunsets, layers of complexity began to peel away. Their dislikes and weirdness became more apparent, and in the occasional face-to-face interactions they began to pick at each other’s quirks. “You like to do what at a baseball game?” “Yes, I bring a book with me everywhere. Oh, now? I have an e-book downloaded.” It was fun to spend time around him, and she enjoyed his personal company, not just screen conversations. She laid down her shield. The more they hung out, whether online or occasionally in the same town, she loved getting to chat, to laugh, and to enjoy moments that didn’t need words. Those were the best. They would sit for nearly thirty minutes, just reading, holding hands, or driving down a winding road. And it was comfortable. She put aside her helmet.
The bump in the road came. There were nights without chatting, or evenings when she was so tired she didn’t want to talk much at all, even about simple things. Mayra began to nitpick. “Why don’t you try it this way?” “Why do you always order that same thing? Branch out!” “If you work two hours extra each day this week, when are we going to have time together?” There was still the ghost of decency, for when they argued over the phone, they would stay on the line just long enough to resolve conflict and then throw in a joke or two. Tiredness intervened more and more as his work drew him away. But long, late nights were worth it because she could be herself, her weird self, and she knew she was still loved. Her sword wasn’t needed anymore.
And then the breakup hit. This was a tidal wave of misunderstanding caused by multiple factors on both parts; emotions, obligations, distance, distractions. It didn’t seem like there was time enough to unwrap the tangle of knots that their brains had become. The oxygen was sucked away and they fought just to get words in. In the aftermath she threw away her shin guards in desperation, unwittingly hitting his head. It was like throwing down the gauntlet, only he didn’t budge. He wouldn’t fight back. The whisper hit her heart: “He won’t fight for me.” It kicked her hard. There were still some long talks afterwards, a last-ditch attempt at bringing together the torn pieces. Finally after strenuous days, the discussions weedled to nothing. Weeks of silence followed, with emails being written but never sent, words that would never be spoken. Nothing helped. Mayra was alone again.
The question mark that had been so boldly welcoming was no longer an adventure.
She gathered up her armor, steeling herself from the inevitable pain. Routine was her only escape. It was easier returning to the safety of not feeling anything. There was no fight left. The tears rusted the inside of her armor. “Good. That means I can keep the barrier in front of myself forever and ever.” First she tried to fix it. To fix her mind, the situation, and to change his mind somehow. This didn’t last long. Her broken heart was completely shattered. She didn’t know an organ could ache so much. She wondered if maybe the cause of her pain was herself. “Did I react badly to the situation?” “Did I not communicate well enough?” “Were my priorities misaligned?” Blame towards him was easy. But it didn’t last long because he was never much of an in-your-face type person anyways, especially since she was yelling at the image of who she remembered. Pointless. Random conversations with fellow gym-a-holics or coffee-shop connoisseurs helped her to forget her pain for a time.
It took her just two more weeks to forgive him, two months after not hearing a single word from him to feel somewhat normal again, and more than twice that time to initiate some new routines in her life. Mayra began to move forward more easily, but she was still faking it. She wasn’t really fine and she hid behind her armor of a smile. This was more dangerous than the initial armor because though her mouth told everyone, “I’m fine,” very rarely did people take the time to ask whether she was telling the truth. “Haha, yep, I’m making it. How is your son doing with his new soccer team?”
When Mayra was alone she fought with herself more than anything. It had been ingrained into her brain how her mind was supposed to react to grief, and she tried to let herself hurt. She cried a lot, sometimes immediately after laughing with friends. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Deep breath.” “Life will go on, and there are still sunsets, barking dogs, starry nights, and distracting texts to keep me from thinking too hard.” “The world is still going and I am still breathing and life will get back to normal.” But it doesn’t really. What is normal?
“There is still beauty around me, even if it isn’t what I thought.” She laughed at a hyperactive squirrel or smiled at a kid riding his scooter. She removed the helmet once again. The air around her felt amazing. “Besides, it’s not good to keep the memories inside.” Bittersweet memories came in floods. Whenever she saw a color, a place, a person, all acute reminders of something she no longer had, she wanted to crumble. Time ticked on relentlessly. “I can’t think about it that way. What is something that I am thankful for about this memory?” “What can I take away from that?” “Lord, help me remember the good, not just the hurt.” She experienced all emotions. Very few people got to see, except her closest friends, as the waves of hurt, anger and self-loathing poured out of her. It had been wonderful. And that might be better than never to have experienced it at all. Instead of fighting the lie that she should show no emotion, she released her sword of regret and began to realize that she might just be stepping into the road less traveled. “It’s what everyone dreams, right?” “Who says it doesn’t ache?”
In her mind’s wanderings, she realises that her journey will not be the same as the expected norm. Graduate, go to college, get married, have kids, settle down. Well, maybe this is a good thing. As Mayra learns to move on, she is growing less afraid of that big unknown. That random question mark is okay. Even better, these beings that surround her have experienced their own hurts, and they can relate in different ways than what she knew. Now she can discard that shield. “I don’t have to stay perfectly safe all the time.” “People are not perfect, but neither am I.” She steps out of the routine into opportunities and relationships that she wouldn’t have dared to face before. Her story might be different than the two of them, together. But that doesn’t make it wrong. She is changed, and maybe it’s time for a new story. “Bring on the adventure!”