The Perfect Love
by Sarah Rose Cadorette
When I was fourteen, I went to see a psychic. I asked her, How will I fall into a perfect love? She told me that girls who have yet to grow child-bearing hips have yet to imagine a perfect love, and I said, Then when will I?
Psychics just don’t understand.
She sighed, and said she could predict a time when I would comprehend love, and maybe then I wouldn’t ask if it was perfect or not. I hate when people answer questions with future un-questions.
I went to another psychic, one who sold potions so I knew she’d have an answer for me. She said I would find my perfect love when on the brink of death. This didn’t seem better, but at least I knew I would have one.
I waited for two weeks before growing impatient.
Killing one’s self can be quite easy, but almost, just nearly killing oneself is surprisingly difficult. You can hang yourself, as long as you never kick the chair away. You can cut yourself, as long as you cut the wrong way, and across unimportant veins. Strangling yourself might be best, because you’ll almost always pass out before you die.
I learned a lot about human anatomy during this time.
But I wasn’t trying hard enough. Tons of people try to kill themselves by simple hanging or strangulation, and fail. Death, and the Perfect Love, wouldn’t arrive on the heels of any suicide attempt. I came up with blueprints, charts, maps of how to kill myself in novel ways.
Once, while at the aquarium with my parents, I slowed my steps near the Amazon exhibit. A marine biologist was walking along a huge display of piranhas, dispelling myths about the fish to an eager audience as she fed them. I casually shoved my way to the front, putting my fingers gently over the lip of the exhibit. The marine biologist asked me to scoot back, because though the tank was just half-full, the piranha were quite vicious, and it was best to play it safe. Instead, I threw all my weight into my shoulders, made myself top-heavy, slid face-first into the tank like a comatose seal. I had also made sure to fill my pockets with slices of ham before leaving the house.
Gasp! The shock and horror I could only imagine they felt! The onlookers, the piranha, that first stupid psychic, my Perfect Love waiting nearby. Thoughts all seem connected when your mind goes into shock. The muted, fleshy glow of light through the water’s skin was the inside of my Perfect Love’s cheek after swallowing a mouthful of my famous Blueberry Jello Pie; the gloved hand striking towards my limbs, his knowing and gentle grip.
It was actually an exhibit attendant, a daddish fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and a narrow face. My parents recognized him as Mr. Dietrich, the guy who lives on the street over and doesn’t take his Christmas decorations down until August. My Perfect Love would never defile the sanctity of the Holy Season (Nov. 1st-Jan. 7th). I tried again.
My next attempt was more poetic. My English teacher read us Poe, because he thought all high schoolers could relate. I did, because I wanted to hear the constant thumping of a man’s heart so I would never be alone; love transcends physical boundaries. I went home that night and placed a broken metronome under my bed. (I understand that, yes, this was a weak allusion to a near-death experience, but, as my Shop teacher would say, “All architects start by playing with Lincoln Logs.”) I had nightmares in which my Perfect Love was a rotting bird carcass moving in uneven stop-motion.
Metronomes aren’t loves for people to have, especially when they’re off-beat. It portends infidelity. My Perfect Love would be punctual as a heartbeat.
I settled on burying myself alive. A heavy snow slumbered down our avenues and gutters. I chose a greedy snowdrift, engorged at the end of a driveway, to crawl into.
People said I knew it was Mr. Glass’s house, that I had looked him up in the Yellow Pages and purposefully crawled into his snowbank, like I was some sort of attention-grubbing freak. I never heard them, but I know they said that. Anyway, Mr. Glass dug me out of the snowbank and touched my face and said, “Are you breathing, are you alive?” And I said, “Hhhhh,” because my lips were too cold to move. Mr. Glass rushed me to the hospital in the back of his station wagon that smelled like rubber soles and dog. It’s a good thing I was close to being in shock, otherwise that smell would always remind me of Mr. Glass.
My mother read me Fahrenheit 451 and fed me Hot Tamales while I recovered. The nurse wondered aloud whether she was “pagan, or Jehovah’s Witness, or something else that kills your children” when my mother wasn’t in the room and I was supposed to be sleeping. No, I thought, she just loves too much. My Perfect Love would never love foolishly.
When I returned to English class the next week, Mr. Glass strode through the door over two minutes late. He said we were beginning our unit on Jane Austen. I felt doubly betrayed.
My Perfect Love would be immune to colds, and insults. A stray wind would nary touch his brow. My Perfect Love couldn’t fathom being deposed. King of my heart, forever and a day.
The following Thanksgiving, my family traveled to Aunt Margaret’s house for dinner. Aunt Margaret does not have money for a welcome mat, my mom said, so wear your cleanest shoes. Her house stilted above some train tracks, and when we were sitting down to dinner and a train passed, my father said, “What was that?”
“Just a train, dear,” my mother replied, and no one looked at my dad when he said, “Oh, I thought it was the ocean.”
The next time we visited Aunt Margaret, I brought a conch shell, one my mother scavenged years ago on some nubile beach vacation. While everyone was discussing politics and window dressings, I snuck out to the tracks. I sat on my heels, let the gravel make pockmarks in my knees, and slowly lay myself over the corrupted metal. Conch shell on my right ear, left ear to the ground—I lay between two sonic eternities: tidal gravity and tectonic shifts.
A lapping, the train wheels kiss-punching the tracks on one side, the wide ocean mouth inhaling on the other. I could hear a whistle, so far away it could have been from a coal mine in the 1800s, could have been imagined, but through my closed eyelids I could see a dim yellowness growing. The train’s chanting became a collapsing cavern, the falling boulders that would bury us all alive, rumbling titans to crush us here inside the mine! The ocean was baiting its breath, and the more it inhaled the less I heard it, just the mastication of metal-on-metal.
Something like a lull.
“What are you DOING?” someone screamed.
I sat up because inside my shell, it sounded like a ship had sunk. I saw a boy, about my age, who was gazing at me like a drowning victim. I yelled back, “I’m waiting for my perfect love!”
“WHAT?” he shouted.
“I SAID—” but I couldn’t even hear the rest of what I said because the train passed behind me.
He covered his ears, shook his head and jogged away. My Perfect Love would never stop listening to me, even if he couldn’t hear me.
When I got back inside Aunt Margaret’s house, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at her hands splayed across the sticky red tablecloth. My father was standing at the sink, gazing at the window dressing or a bird in the backyard or the inside of his thoughts. Aunt Margaret walked in from the other side of the kitchen and said, “Where have you been?”
“The bathroom,” I replied, placing my mother’s conch shell next to her right pinky. She looked up at me slowly, uncovering each feature, as if she had seen my nose before but not on my face, and whose eyes are those?
Aunt Margaret always said I had my father’s chin and mother’s spunk.
Now I was a junior in high school, and boys started saying things to me like, “Want to go to Prom with me?” And I said, “Why?” because I knew my Perfect Love wouldn’t come so easily. Only one of them ever answered, a boy with feathered blonde hair named Ethan.
“Why? Because I like the way you fidget when we read Shakespeare in class. I like the way you walk, like you’re a detective on the trail of a clue. I like how quiet you are.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think you’re beautiful and strange.”
I didn’t respond. A week later, a guest speaker came to address us, the students, the promenade re-enactors. He said, “I know Prom is coming up,” and some boys who always sat at the back (of the auditorium, class, bus) hooted. “So I’m going to talk to you about drunk driving,” he said, and the boys cheered again, and the gym teachers escorted them from the room.
He showed us pictures of cars totaled by drunk drivers, the shredded bumpers and jagged windshields glistening under whatever fluorescent lighting was used to give the photos maximum effect. There were slides of teenagers in tuxedos and evening gowns, sequins dotting their pastel taffeta, bloody and monstrous. There were once-faces and twisted limbs.
He said, “Do you want this to happen to you?” and I thought, Almost.
The next day I passed Ethan a note in class, Yes okay I will go to Prom with you. He wrote back, Awesome, I’m so excited! When should I pick you up?
You have your own car? And you’ll be driving?
Yeah 🙂 So, when should I pick you up?
I don’t know, when does the Prom start?
Don’t you want to go out to dinner first?
I guess, if that’s what people do.
Great! Do you like Chinese?
Ethan picked me up at 5, which I’d read is a fashionably early time for dinner.
“Wow, you look great,” he said.
“Thanks, it’s my mom’s dress,” I said, making sure the hot magenta arm poof didn’t get caught in the car door as I closed it. “She wore it to her prom in the eighties, when my dad took her as his date,” which is something I said but didn’t want to say, because I was nervous. Ethan smiled slightly and started the car. After we’d been driving for a while, I said, “Are we going to drink tonight?”
Ethan didn’t seem quite ready for this question, I noticed by the way he furrowed his brow. “Uh, well, do you want to?”
“I think at least one of us should.”
This, also, seemed to confuse him. “Um, okay, well I don’t have anything, but some of my friends are throwing an after-party we could go to. They’ll have alcohol there.”
“Okay,” I said. We arrived at the Chinese restaurant and ate in relative silence. Ethan asked me questions as I read my horoscope placemat.
“How do you like this place so far?” Ethan asked.
“You are romantic and deep thinking,” I read.
He blushed. “Well, thanks, you’re pretty great yourself.” He cleared his throat. “So, do you know what you’re going to study in college yet?”
“I would be most content as a philosopher, writer or fortune teller,” I read, thinking, At least I know enough about that last one.
He laughed, “Yeah, I don’t know what I want to be yet, either.”
“Keep your sense of humor about life,” I read.
“I guess that’s all we can do,” he agreed.
At the dance, a boy and girl from my science class greeted Ethan. “Hey dude!” the boy, who I think is named Brad, said, and high-fived Ethan. The girl, who I think is named Carolyn, said I looked pretty, and then said, “Can we have girl talk real quick?”
“Aren’t we already having girl talk?” I asked, because we were both girls.
“You’re so funny! Give us one sec, boys,” she said to the boys. We stepped away from them, and Carolyn said, “So, are you guys dating?”
“Um, I don’t think so,” I said. I glanced at Ethan, who was blushing at something Brad said.
“Well, are you guys going to…you know…”
“I know what?” I asked.
“Are you going to have sex tonight?” she asked. “It is Prom, after all.” My mouth felt dry, so I didn’t respond for a while. Carolyn said, “Because, Ethan is great and all, but one of my friends hooked up with him and said it hurt like hell.”
“You mean, it hurt like death?” I asked, because I remembered overhearing the foreign exchange student, Audrey, whispering to a group of girls that the French call orgasms la petite mort—“the little death.”
“What?” Carolyn asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
She eyed me for a second. “Right, well, have fun!” she chirped, and sparkled off, dragging Brad onto the dance floor. Ethan walked over and extended his hand to me. “Shall we?” he asked, which I assumed he meant to end with, “dance?” and gave him my hand.
The dancing was okay, in that I hate dancing to pop music because I don’t know how to move like women in MTV videos and it makes me nervous, and dancing with Ethan to slow songs was nice but he smelled like the men’s hygiene aisle in Walgreen’s and it made me more nervous. When the Prom was over, Ethan asked if I still wanted to go to his friend’s after-party.
“Are your parents home?” I asked.
“Uh, no, they’re actually visiting my grandparents up north,” he said. “Did you want to go to my place?”
“Yes, if it means we will be alone,” I said. This seemed to make Ethan very excited, because he agreed and then walked to the car quickly.
At his house, we skimmed over conversation. He put in a movie, something about two people who face a conflict but eventually fall in love, and we pretended to watch it for about ten minutes before he kissed me. I was surprised; I actually liked it. He kissed me again, only this time his lips didn’t leave mine and I knew we were now making out. We must have done this for a long time, because the movie ended and he said, “Want to move to my room?”
“Okay,” I whispered, because my voice felt like it was hiding in my throat. He led me upstairs by the hand, gently rubbing my fingertips. At the door to his room, he asked me not to make fun of him for all the kid stuff he still had, like a dinosaurs bedspread and Little League trophies.
“Why would I make fun of you for that?” I asked, because I wanted to know if I should. But he just laughed a little and looked at me like he wanted to see me every time he turned around.
Now he was opening the door and guiding me to his bed. We made out, he kissed my neck, I felt a warmth shimmy through my body like when you can feel hot tea slide down your throat and out your toes. He whispered into my ear, “Hold on, I’ll be right back,” kissed my cheek, and vanished into the bathroom. I knew that people get naked in order to have sex, so I unzipped my dress (which was not easy, due to the obtrusive arm poofs) and slipped out of it, laying it neatly across a chair. I was trying to unhook my bra when Ethan appeared. His jaw looked unhinged and his eyes were enormous, like when cartoon men turn into panting cartoon wolves. I chuckled a little, because I thought he was playing a part, but his face didn’t change so I said, “Am I doing something shocking?”
“Well, I, uh—” he stammered, “No, but—do you really want to be doing this?”
“Yes,” I exhaled.
“Okay,” I could see him take a deep breath. “Okay, uh, let me just get a condom first.” He turned around, back towards the bathroom. I had heard guys making jokes about condoms in health class. They weren’t funny to me, but the punchline always seemed to be how much easier it was to orgasm without one. I wanted to have the biggest little death possible, so I said,
“I would prefer you didn’t.”
Ethan stopped, turned around. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said, “it won’t feel the same.”
He approached me, looking hungry and amazed, I was in his hands and we were kissing again. Gently, he laid me down, removed my undergarments, discarded his jacket, his cummerbund, his shirt and pants. His lips were pressing into mine, but delicately, and now he was propping himself up over me on both arms, and staring into my eyes, and now I felt a strange pressure filling me and—oh.
I can say that when Carolyn insinuated having sex with Ethan was like death, or after-death, she was not entirely incorrect. There was blood, not much but enough. Ethan apologized, and I said, “Why?” and he said, “I’m not sure.”
The next morning he drove me home, and the whole time never said, “I love you.” He gave me a kiss in my driveway, unlocked my door, and said, “Thanks for a great Prom. I guess I’ll see you in school tomorrow?”
“Do you love me?” I asked.
“Because I think you probably do, and if you do, you should say so.”
“Wow, listen, I really like you, but…love is pretty intense.”
I assumed he meant to end that with, “and our love is so intense you could even call it perfect,” so I waited for a few seconds. Ethan stared at me like he’d just given me a fatal diagnosis, and when I realized he was done talking, I got out of his car.
“Wait, I didn’t mean—” he said, but I closed the door before I heard the last part. My Perfect Love would always say what he means.
When I walked into my house, my father was sleeping on the couch in the living room. He woke up as I closed the door, saying, “How was Prom, sweetie?” in a groggy voice.
“Enlightening,” I said, before I ran up to my room and cried.
A few weeks later, in first period, I asked for a bathroom pass. The teacher said I would have to wait until the break between classes to go, and I should’ve gone before school started and she was sick of students messing around in the bathroom during her class. So I threw up all over my desk instead. She gave me a pass to the nurse’s office and I glanced at Ethan, his brow more furrowed than ever, on my way out the door.
The nurse asked me if I felt feverish, and I said no, just tired. She let me take a nap in her office for the next two periods, until lunchtime. When I got up to leave, the nurse said, “Are you sure you feel better?”
“Yes, and I have a very important class right now,” I said, and sped-walked to the cafeteria.
Three days after that, I threw up right after breakfast. My mom called up the stairs, “Are you ready for school?”
“No,” I said, “I’m throwing up.”
“Well hurry up, I have to get to work,” she said. I felt a little better, so I rinsed out my mouth and went downstairs. My mother was standing in the entryway, staring at a wedding photo of her and my father that hung on the wall. She looked like someone who had just discovered a new lost cause. She noticed me abruptly and said, “Ready to go?”
I nodded, and tried not to ask how Dad was doing on the way to school.
By the third time I showed up in the nurse’s office, she said, “Can I ask you something?” I nodded, and she said, “Have you had unprotected sex recently?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Did you have sex without using a condom or some other form of protection?”
“Yes,” I said, “but he removed himself quickly.”
She gave me a pitying look, like the one my father gave my dog right before we put her to sleep.
“Honey,” she said, “I think you’re pregnant.”
“I feel feverish now,” I said, and passed out.
My mother came to pick me up. Since I was a minor, the nurse had told her everything, my minor indiscretions. She didn’t speak until we were in the car, when she simply asked, “How?”
“How what?” I said, but it came out like hegh hegh hegh because I was sobbing. She stopped at a pharmacy on the way home. She said before we jump to conclusions, we should be sure.
I stood in the bathroom, holding the plastic stick in front of the mirror, and said, “I’m sure,” but it came out like sugh sugh sugh.
Ethan came to visit me the next day, while my mother was at work. When I answered the door I said, “Shouldn’t you be in school right now?” and he said, “Some things are more important.”
I let him in and he sat on our couch, his hair the same color as the big stripes that streamed across it.
“You’ve been pretty sick lately,” he said, fidgeting with his hands. “I just…wanted to see how you’re doing.”
“I’m okay,” I said, “just pregnant.” Ethan turned the color of calla lilies, so I said, “Do you need to throw up?” He didn’t respond, just shook his head quickly and stared at the floor. When he looked up at me again, his bottom lip was trembling. “What are we going to do?” His words sounded hollow, like they lost meaning somewhere between his Adam’s apple and lips.
“We? I thought I was the one giving birth.”
“So you’re keeping it?”
“My mother thinks I should give birth, then give it away.” I tried to pretend this was a conversation about King Lear, or Hamlet. I tried not to cry. “She said raising a child at my age means I couldn’t go to college or pursue my dreams. She said it was the most difficult thing she’s ever done.”
Ethan looked relieved, and hurt, and still a little sick. “I want to help,” he said.
“How?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know.” He looked up at me, “What do you need?”
“I need a perfect love,” I whispered. Ethan opened his mouth, but before he could struggle with words, my mother walked into the room. She locked her gaze on Ethan, and, in an even tone, growled, “Leave.”
Ethan stood up and began to say something, perhaps, “Don’t make me leave, I was just about to tell your daughter that I love her,” but my mother said, “Now,” in a way that makes you scared to ever speak again. Ethan glanced at me, bowed his head and walked out the front door.
My mother watched him go, then turned to me and said, “Don’t fall for his lies. I don’t even want you talking to him.” She stomped into the kitchen, then called, “You might think you love him, but fifteen years from now you’ll realize how foolish you were.”
The next seven and a half months was like reading your favorite suspense novel for the second time: you know how it’s going to end, but every plot twist seems significant nonetheless. Every ultrasound, every blood test, every craving and soreness should be monitored or was perfectly normal, everything was documented. My mother pulled me out of school, to save me from “the torment of insensitive bullies,” and my body agreed to keep me plenty busy at home. I began to feel my internal organs, their boundaries and heft. Ethan called me frequently, but I never called him back. My Perfect Love wouldn’t need to be a secret from my family, from the world. So when my water broke one morning, a month before anyone expected water to come pouring out of me, my mother and I rushed to the hospital by ourselves.
“You’re a month early, this is too soon, too soon,” my mother kept repeating. I breathed in and out to her rhythm, too soon inhale too soon exhale too soon. By the time we made it to the emergency room, my mother speeding up to the front doors, we were both practicing hyperventilation.
An orderly came rushing out with a wheelchair, and as soon as he saw me emerge from the lopsided sedan, he said something important into his walkie talkie. I plopped into the wheelchair and he pushed me through the automatic doors, straight through the waiting room of screaming children and harried adults, as my mother screamed at the orderly, “But she’s not due for a month!” The orderly knew she was trying to delay the birth by screaming, so he didn’t tell her to shut up.
The next hour, or several, I remember as bright vignettes: I am a banshee on a hospital bed as a doctor looks between my knees, then says something to my mother, who gasps and makes a desperate gurgling noise. She is wearing a turtleneck, and the fluorescent lighting makes her nose seem sharper than usual.
I am being rushed through a hallway on a gurney, and my mother’s face is above me saying, “You’ll be fine, they perform C-sections all the time, especially for young mothers, you’ll be fine, I love you!” Her eyes are bloodshot. My elbows are sore; I believe I am trying to sit up, but can’t.
A thick rubber covers my mouth and nose. I can snap my eyes open, but the lids keep falling back closed. Someone in scrubs is asking me to count backwards from ten, and my head has become detached from my body. I am staring into a flower as it blooms, emitting a bright, white light.
Someone is watching “Wheel of Fortune,” I can hear a contestant spinning the wheel. I open my eyes and my mother is sleeping in a chair. My father is sitting next to her, watching the television. He turns, gazing at her sleeping form for a while, before he notices that I’m staring at him.
“Oh, my darling,” he says, jumping out of his seat and coming to my bedside. “How are you?”
“I am alive,” I state.
“Yes, yes, you’re alive,” he laughs a little. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re alive.” He grabs my right hand and kisses it. My mother wakes up, flapping her eyes a bit before springing out of her seat.
“Oh, my baby!” she squeals, kissing my forehead over and over. “You really gave us a scare, you know. You lost a lot of blood during your operation. We—your father and I—we were afraid of losing you on that table.”
“What table?” I ask, and then I think, My baby is here/my baby is gone. “Where is my baby?”
My parents beg me not to see him, they think I will regret giving birth to a too-brief human. I ask to be wheeled to the nursery anyway. My baby is there, in the last throes of uncertainty. People who say babies don’t assert their independence until age two have never seen a dying baby struggle against his mother’s will.
Psychologists just don’t understand.
“I’m sorry, he’s gone,” the nurse says.
“I’d like to hold him,” I ask.
Gently she says, “He’s not coming back.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I say, because my baby said everything he meant already. The nurse looks to my parents, but they are two molten residents of Pompeii, helpless and immortalized in the face of a power much larger than themselves.
“You’re terribly ugly,” I say, just to see if he is really dead. His lips, blue, don’t so much as twitch. I pick him up gently, the body like soggy wood. I coo into his ear, I tell him I love him, I thank him for his sacrifice, tell him he’ll love his new nursery decked out in jungle animals. He never interrupts.
The nurse hands me his death certificate. It states that on this day, January 8th, exactly one month before his due date, my baby died. My mother says punctuality means being early. This paper says it is now public knowledge that my baby did not waste love, he did not love his life more than me.
I name him Henry VIII. King of my heart, forever and a day.