You said, “We don’t cry for dead people here,” and I couldn’t tell if you were talking to me or yourself.

You said, “We don’t mourn, we take,” and I wanted to place my hands over your lips. To suffocate the language that had made you more monster than man. There was no small violence in your mouth. But it had yet to make a martyr of me.

You said, “Freedom and ruin are one and the same. You have to understand that.”

It was cold. Iced bones and chapped skin against wind that knew no better. I was on the bench behind that diner you used to work at, the one with the red gingham wall art. You were standing. You were burning through your third cigarette in seven minutes. You kissed me.

You left.

The town, cracked. Torn to pieces, split. Left wide open, wanting. Winter came.

There were questions. Days at tables with lights too bright and a hum that never quite went away. A buzz of rumor or story or truth that bulleted heart, made weapon of my affection. They didn’t know that I had stopped waiting for you.

I met her on that bench, outside of that diner you used to work at.

She said, “Woman to woman. We need to talk,” and so I let her. There was a marriage between her teeth and her tongue. I watched them propose and dance and honeymoon and she said, “I forgive you. For running him away.”

It was warm then. The sun had yet to remember it’s place in the sky, but it was warm still. She patted me on the leg. A mother, a hand that still looked like stolen cotton and erased surnames and children we’d never see again.

I stayed.

There was nowhere to go and the streets had since regained their rhythm. The American flags on front doors had been folded and stored away. In Memory Of signs began fading and calla lilies steady browning next to teddy bears that brought no comfort.

They said, “How could you stay with someone like that?” and I had no good answer anymore.

They said, “You’re as bad as he is,” and the pages in my grandmama’s Bible crumbled in my hands. I could not pray myself out of this body, will myself out of this town. The midwest made no home of me.

There were holiday sales and family dinners. Nights where shattered glass sang out above Christmas carols. I pieced this world back together.

We carried on.

B came back that spring with news that there was nowhere left for you to run. He sat on the bench outside of that diner you used to work at and cried into his hands like he could still see the blood on them. They found you, knees bent, head covered, hands clasped.

I didn’t know altars were fair game for search warrants.

He said, “They got him. They’re gonna wreck him,” and I didn’t tell him that you had fallen into disrepair years ago. That you were a building, devastated and crumbling. That my arms were never wide enough to hold you together.

He said, “He deserved better.”

And I said, “We all do.”

Leah Johnson is a multimedia storyteller and Midwestern expat currently moonlighting as a MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood. Her essays and commentary have been previously published with Bustle and Blavity and her short fiction in Yes Poetry.