Hawthorne & Heathcliff
Author:R.K. Ryals

That was the day I quit trying, not at life, just at myself.

That was the day I’d pulled the pearls from my neck and watched as the beads rolled from the carpeted stairs to the hardwood floor below, the clunk, clunk, clunk a loud reminder that I had a heart.

That was the day I’d pulled the tiara from my perfect coiffure, and then screamed, my fingers digging at the hairstyle, tugging my hair so hard my scalp burned.

That was the day I learned why my uncle stayed unkempt. Because if someone was already messed up, then maybe being put together wouldn’t hurt so much.

That was the day my uncle looked up at my reddened cheeks and smeared coral lipstick, his fingers pulling at that awful tie, and he said, “You’ve got this, Hawthorne. Together, we’ve got this. We may not do it right, but you’ve got to try. For my sake.”

Hawthorne wasn’t my name, but that day, it became my name. I often wondered why my uncle called me that, but that day it didn’t matter. The only words I heard were for my sake.

My uncle’s home wasn’t much of a home, and he was a very not typical father, but he climbed those stairs that day and tried unsuccessfully to straighten out my hair, his eyes reddening. That climb and his trying fingers were enough to make him a dad. He cried, and I cried with him on those stairs.

“For my sake,” he’d said.

The sobs were drowned out by the rain.

If you want to know the truth, this is a love story, but it isn’t the kind of love story you think it is. Because this story isn’t easy, it’s hard. This love story is full of fear. Life is downright scary, and if you survive it, no matter how easy you have it, then you’re brave. You don’t live life, you tackle it, jump on top of it, and pound the shit out of the earth all while it rains around you.

Life happens while it’s raining.

Life happens when you’re falling.

Life happens when you exhale.

Life just … happens.

For my sake.

11 years later …

Chapter 1

The first time I ever met him, he was sitting in the back of my last period English class. He was the kind of guy that girls looked twice at but didn’t approach, because no matter how attractive he was, there wasn’t much you could do with a guy who didn’t talk.

Maybe that’s why I noticed him. It wasn’t just because I sat next to him, it was because I wasn’t much for talking either. Our mutual respect for silence was the reason we were relegated to the back. The only difference between us was our appearance. He was handsome enough to be remembered. He was handsome enough to have poems written about him, the kind that called him solemn and stoic, the kind of brooding soul I’d always imagined Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights to have. I was just the strange, unkempt girl with the weird uncle and no parents. I was a bunch of sad stories.

Truth was, life had taught me that words were better spoken when they meant something. Which meant I spent more time talking to my uncle and to myself than I did to those my age. It’s funny, really, how much one moment in your life can separate you from the people you’re supposed to relate to. I’d lost that. I’d lost the need to talk about clothes, dating, and sex. I wanted to talk about the things everyone else wanted to forget; life and death and symbolism.

It was true. I was weird.

I’d only had three loves in my life: my uncle, books, and an overwhelming desire to become a philosophical chef with a Classics degree, because who doesn’t want to eat great food and spend hours lost in history?

It was true. I was weird.

And yet, in many ways, he was, too. So it began, this odd dance of sidelong glances and uncomfortable shifting, as if neither one of us wanted to admit the other was there across the aisle from the other, not talking. For half a year, I spent my last period pretending the guy didn’t exist, that the girls didn’t whisper about him, that the other guys didn’t throw him strange, murderous glares.

He didn’t care.

In passing, I’d heard one of the girls refer to him as Max Vincent, but I’d quit thinking of him as a regular name. In my mind, he was Heathcliff. He was a quiet, young man too large for his desk, his legs always stretched out in front or to the side of his seat to accommodate for his height. Occasionally, his beat-up tennis shoes rested next to mine in the aisle, and I’d stare at them—my foot and his—as if they were more than shoes and feet, as if they represented something larger than that.

Two shoes, my size seven and his much larger undisclosed number.

Hawthorne and Heathcliff.

Two names that didn’t belong to us. Two shoes that did.

I obviously needed a better hobby than baking and philosophy. Last period English class was a sad reminder of that. Six months of sidelong glances and comparing tennis shoes, and sadly it was a Friday afternoon and Sylvia Plath who did me in. There’s a mystery to silence that, once broken, can’t be returned.

Poetry was Mrs. Callahan’s favorite form of senior torture. Poetry is an acquired taste. It’s a deep look at life in an odd, sometimes broken way. It turned life into a puzzle, and puzzles weren’t something my class was interested in solving. Their lives were already bursting with perplexities, and they were too occupied with trying to figure each other out, trying to figure their hormones out. High school was like a zoo packed with predators trying their best to scent out the weak.

Poetry handed them the weak.

The moment Mary Callahan read Mirror by Sylvia Plath, I was riveted. Call it fate, but the poem spoke to me. That was the point of poetry, I guess, but this poem wasn’t about romance or nature or death, it was—

Suddenly, my musings were interrupted by Rebecca Martin.

“I love my mirror,” she teased, her throaty voice enough to enchant a room.