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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2019 - Vol. 16, Issue 4

"The Space Between Us"

written by

Ariana Hoelscher

The city is alive in the dying light. The snapshot a long-exposure photo, with the taillights of cars streaking like arteries through the streets. The steady, pattering heartbeat of footsteps on the sidewalk pulses in the coming dusk. Streetlights snap into focus in the crisp air—gold and green and red bleed onto the pavement and catch in empty store windows. As I hurry through the streets my lungs burn from exertion and second-hand cigarette smoke. Gray clouds on the horizon melt into dusty lavender fingers and rose gold shimmers of sunlight.

I stand outside the cathedral carving itself out of the sky in elegant stone spires, feeling like I slipped between the fingers of the century, caught between city steel and stained glass windows. When I step inside the cathedral it’s like I’m walking into someone else’s home. You step softly, politely, when you move in a space that’s not yours. 

The stillness is absolute, as if time has been caught in the vaulted ceilings. Sheets of stained glass line the edges of the cathedral, and statues of saints and dark wooden pews lead up to a gilded tabernacle on the altar. The lanterns above me cast a burnished glow across the empty room. 

I sink into the back pew, silently resigned. I remember the first time Laurens took me here. The glint of holy water on his forehead at the door, the rustle of his starched jeans as he knelt at the pew, the murmur of his voice mingling with others. Standing next to him, I felt a world away. His was a world of saints and sinners, sacraments and Sunday Mass. He made it look so easy. Looking at Laurens, I saw the glory of the Church through his eyes. He made everything beautiful—he made living an art form. 

His laughter burned like cheap whiskey, pooling in my stomach and heating my skin. Freckles were splattered like a spray of ink across his tan, parchment paper skin. His wiry wrists peeked out of dusty flannel and his bony ankles jutted out of rolled-up jeans. A half-smile always graced his full lips. He smelled like old books and rosemary and wood-smoke around a campfire. He had hands like a pianist, a mind like a poet, and a mouth that made every word a psalm.  

He was restless, a wanderer. A seeker. His prized possession was his mother’s rosary, handmade from string and red glass beads that sparked like garnets in the light. The crucifix at the end was worn smooth on one edge from his fingers. He prayed so often that the words are burned into my mind. Before exams and after rough days and in the early morning light before class, his mouth would shape old words he said reminded him of home, and his hands would touch beads that his mother’s furrowed fingers had passed over countless times. I know he still thinks of her in between the murmured Hail Mary’s and Lord’s Prayers, said half in Spanish and half in drowsy English. 

I remember us spilling out with the rest of the congregation after Mass, the kaleidoscope of stained glass colors fading to gray stone and a slate sky as we snuck around to the side alley. I was still spellbound and dazed from the strangeness of stepping into reality after an eternity away. He acted like it was nothing. He had always navigated between the secular and the sacred so effortlessly until I came around. 

“The blood of Christ?” I raised an eyebrow. 

He smiled that half-smile of his. Knowing me, knowing how much I wanted to understand but couldn’t. So instead of more words and arguments, he leaned in. I tasted wine on his lips—a sacrament not meant for me. And in that moment, with the cold, rough stone against my back and the warmth of his wine-sweet lips on mine, I almost believed in miracles. 

But that was then, before his unending patience unraveled and the full weight of his transgressions sank in. Before he realized that sometimes confessions don’t bring catharsis. Before he lost himself piece by piece, day by day. Before he realized that faith is hard to find and easy to lose. 

There are so many things that are easy to lose. 

Over the months I watched him grow distant, cooler. The warmth of his skin faded, and his laughter became jaded. I became one of his mistakes, one of his sins. He would rise in the cold charcoal darkness to attend early morning Mass on weekdays and returned with tight lips and empty eyes. He was searching for answers I couldn’t provide, searching for something that he could no longer find. At night he would slump at his desk, and instead of soft prayers his voice was bitter and pleading. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation. One morning, I woke to find him still clutching the beads of his rosary in his hand, asleep against the desk with tear tracks dried on his face. 

The tension built, and I can’t say I didn’t play a part in it. I didn’t understand how someone so warm could become so cold. After a while, I began to close off my mind from the doors he had opened. His murmured prayers, once charming, were now annoying. His conservative views that I had once regarded as traditional now came out flat and hard. Rituals that seemed quaint, mysterious, even powerful, were now dogma that he hid behind. Stung by the distance he was putting between us, I lashed out with cutting remarks and acrid laughs. We spiraled deeper into arguments, arming ourselves with words like rusty razor blades. 

As he retreated into the routine of his upbringing, I began to take his actions more personally. His touch was perfunctory at best, like I was one more bead on a rosary, my name one more Hail Mary for his lips to murmur. Eventually, even that was withdrawn. The affectionate, kind soul I had fallen in love with began to feel like the memory of summer sunshine during a frigid January. 

And yet, there were times that the distance between us was no more than a breath. Times when his skin burned, when the brand of his lips on mine was all that mattered. We were flesh and heat knit together. He created living, breathing poetry scrawled in kisses and fevered touches across my skin. He whispered my name like a hymn, gazed at me like I was a mystery to be adored. 

But the easy stability we had enjoyed was gone. He was still searching for what he had lost, trying to fix what was damaged. He was convinced that he was broken, and he could not fix himself. He tried. And so he abandoned himself to be consumed in his love and self-loathing, and each kiss we shared drove him further from himself. And yet, he said he loved me, and he did. It wouldn’t have hurt him if he didn’t. 

We were both getting impatient. I wanted to be more than one of his mistakes, but I can’t say I earned the right to be anything else. For all his searching, I never could provide the answers he was looking for. The community he had in the Church was gone, and I saw the guilt eating away at him. What could I give him besides the pleasures of sin? I was no saint. I tore him apart, and he tried to put the pieces back together in vain. The world he knew was gone, and in its place how could I compare? It was me, or the Church. 

Something had to give. 

Stretched out on his bed a few hours and a lifetime ago, I felt the tension of his body as my fingers brushed the taut skin over his violin string ribs. Evening sunlight poured in between the slats of the blinds in a copper blush, stirring up the room of shadows and dust. His skin glowed bronze, and his eyes gleamed in the half-darkness. 

“You wanted to talk,” he said, biting off the rest of his sentence. 

The words made my stomach twist. It’s what I had wanted, but I couldn’t see anything other than the end ahead of us. We were rushing toward the inevitable, and we both felt it. This was just a preliminary gesture. Neither of us knew how to bridge the gap anymore. There was too much space between us. Too much space between who Laurens wanted to be and who he really was. 

I kissed him, but his mouth was hard. He tasted of salt and sweat instead of sweet wine. When he pulled back, he leaned over to reach for his sweater draped across the bedpost. His eyes were dark like the sky before a storm. A tense stillness hung over us. Shadows pooled in the hollow of his collarbone and the hard curve of his neck. 

“What do you want from me?" It was hardly a question anymore. 

I didn’t know how to answer. I could have asked him the same thing. 

The gold chain spooled down into the curve of his throat towards the dip of his collarbone, and the small cross flashed as he shifted. His eyes were shards of amber in the sunlight. I could get lost in the galaxies of his eyes and the constellation of freckles across the bridge of his nose. 

“Just… trust me.” I took a shuddering breath of the scent of cigarette smoke and incense that lingered in his hair like a whisper of a broken melody. “Have faith. You’ve always had faith before.” 

“How ironic.” Laurens laughed, but it was hollow and barbed. “How can you of all people tell me to have faith? You don’t understand, Jamie. It’s not that simple. I can’t just throw away my religion because it’s convenient for me, but I can’t go on like this. I can’t go on living a lie and pushing myself farther away from the Church while continuing to make whatever we have work.” 

“Maybe, if you let me in instead of pushing me away, I could help you.” 

Laurens sat up and grabbed his sweater, tugging it over his head in sharp movements. “I think you’ve helped enough.” 

“Listen to me. You don’t have to go. Please, stay. We can take it slow.” 

“Too late,” he said. I thought of that night—the searing heat of whiskey and our mixed breaths and our tangled limbs and the salt of his skin in the summer air. Anything but slow. 

“Don’t blame me for your own mistakes,” I snapped. 

He froze, and his lips curled. “I wanted to wait. I wanted to do it right.” 

“Right? You mean you wanted to get married, have a family? We both know that’s never going to happen. And you know that there is no ‘right’ when it comes to us. You can’t have the perfect life you always wanted—not with me. You know that.” 

“What do you want me to do then, James? I’m trying to live the way I promised my mother I would.” Laurens slid out of bed and took his keys off the desk. He picked up his rosary, turned it in his hands. 

“I don’t want to be bound by your promises,” I said. 

With every word I drove him away, but I couldn’t stand the uncertainty of not knowing. I couldn’t stand to see him pulled in two directions at once and being torn apart because of it. I followed him to his desk, swallowing my fear and steeling myself for the fight or the flight. 

“You don’t understand.” His voice cracked. “You don’t understand how hard this is—” 

“I understand that you can’t continue to say one thing and do another.” The words were splinters of glass in my throat. “Either have faith, or have none. Stop running away and choose!” 

Laurens spun on his heel and stalked towards the door. My hand lashed out. I meant to grab his wrist, but I caught the rosary instead. It snapped. The beads clattered onto the floorboards, glistening like spilt blood. He raised his eyes to mine as I clutched the smooth edge of the crucifix worn down by restless fingers. He was gone before I could react, and the only thing that anchored me to the world was the metal warming in my hand.

And so I went to the only place I knew he would be, but the cathedral is empty. My thumb brushes the crucifix in the pocket of my coat as I play back the day’s events in my mind. Dust motes hang suspended in the dying light that bleeds through the stained glass windows. The lights overhead burn, ethereal in the sweeping dusk. 

Finally, I realize that he isn’t coming. This place is not his solace or his refuge anymore. I have torn him from his home, and he has been cast out to wander the wilderness alone. I turn to leave. Without him, I have no place here. I push open the heavy oak door to the streets and walk down the steep concrete steps, and then I pause. 

Around the side of the church is a courtyard full of rose bushes gone dormant in the cold and a gravel path that winds beside a statue of Mary with her hands clasped in prayer. The gate is open, and as I step forward I hear rasping, hitching breathes between gaps of silence. It is Laurens, curled up with his back against the cold marble statue and eyes red-rimmed in the growing moonlight. 

There is a pile of cigarette ashes on the pedestal at the feet of Mary like a burnt offering, and a box of cigarettes is tucked half-hidden into rose bushes next to him. He looks up sharply as my shoes crunch on the gravel path. 

“What do you want?” He scrubs a hand across his eyes and trails ashes onto his jacket. 

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” 

He looks up at me with burnt-out eyes and a twisted mouth and says nothing. 

I sit down on the pedestal of the statue, swinging a leg over it and being careful not to disturb the ash. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” There was a time when he would have given forgiveness unconditionally, but not anymore. “I’m sorry too.” His words are hollow, as if they mean nothing, as if apologies can no longer bridge the chasm between us. “I love you,” he says with a high, bitter laugh, as if even that doesn’t matter anymore. 

The wind whines in the trees around the courtyard. 

“Do you ever think about what could have happened if things were different,” he says. “What if, in another world, we never met? What if I didn’t grow up Catholic? What if we had been friends instead? I could have met a nice Catholic girl and had eight kids.” 

“There would have been someone else,” I say softly. 

“I know.” He looks as if he wants to say more, but he doesn’t. His body screams with tension and exhaustion, and I keep waiting for him to slide back onto the ground so we can gaze at the stars past the city lights together, like we always used to do after fights, but he doesn’t. He just sits there with his knees pulled up to his chest and a cigarette between his trembling fingers. 

I hold out my hand and press the still warm crucifix into his empty palm. “I’m so sorry. I love you.” I say it like a question, and he doesn’t answer. 

He looks at it for a long while, silent. I know when he sees the crucifix he sees his mother, his childhood, dreams of the future like shattered glass. I cannot give him what he so desperately needs. I cannot make him feel whole again. He has torn himself apart, and I cannot put the pieces back together. He stands up stiffly and places the crucifix at the base of Mary’s feet with a small click of metal against stone. 

“Goodbye,” he says, and I don’t know if he is talking to me or the statue. 


When I finally return to the cathedral it is full of people, but it is empty without Laurens. I didn’t expect to be here again, and definitely not without him. Before the priest begins the pews are filled with hushed whispers. Some of them are directed at me. I am a stranger here. I don’t belong in this place. Throughout the prayers and hymns of the Funeral Mass a quiet solemnity hangs over the cathedral like a veil. During Communion I sit in the pews, thinking about the sweet-wine taste of Laurens’ lips on mine that seems so long ago. When the time comes there is no open casket, and the old women whisper about that too after Communion and the final hymn when everyone is filing out of the church.

Afterwards, I go through the side gate to the courtyard and fish out a cigarette from the box under the rose bushes. When everyone has gone I strike a match and stand there with the smoke rising like incense and the ashes scattering in the wind. As the sun sinks behind the horizon and dusk settles in again, I watch the last faint glimmer of light flicker on the edge of the crucifix still sitting at the feet of Mary. 

Ariana Hoelscher is an undergrad at the University of Texas where she works as a writing consultant for the University Writing Center. She lives in Austin with a small army of succulents. In addition to being previously published in Breath and Shadow, her short story "Through the Glass Darkly" is forthcoming in Apricity Magazine

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