ONE DAY HE WAS MY LOVER. The next day he was an ape. Big, hairy arms eventually morphed into the slippery, padded flippers of a sea turtle. How a primate turned into a marine reptile I’ll never know. Eventually those flippers shrunk in size and he turned into a salamander, swimming from one side of the rented tank to the other for weeks.
And then I let him go.
Not because I didn’t love him anymore, but because he’d moved on. He forgot about me, didn’t know who I was, and I couldn’t take that. He progressed so far back into the history of evolutionary time that his only care in the world was catching his next meal in the grips of his muscly tongue–the meal I provided every day.
I had to let him go because he wasn’t himself anymore and I was starting to lose my mind. I can still see it, feel it, now–the day I did it. The damp moss covered Appalachia’s floor, teardrops from the tendrils dripping onto my back as I opened the carrier. He sat inside, thirsting for his original home.
Nobody was around to see me let him go. Therefore, nobody understood that I only had one question on my mind: Would he come back?
I hoped, so I walked around the block every night, praying to God that he would return to me in his beautiful human form. Praying that letting him go wasn’t done in vain. As soon as I could afford my own telephone line, I listed my phone number and waited next to it.
As the years passed, I forged new routines; the salamander became a fleeting thought. At 8 p.m. on February 11, the telephone finally rang. I sat stunned when I heard his caramel-honey voice.
Hello, he said.
How are you? he said.
Do you want to get coffee? he said.
And I said yes.
We met the next morning at the coffee shop down the road. Ordered our drinks and breakfast and waited patiently for our food to arrive. The restaurant was crowded with early morning workers and busy bodies. But I didn’t see any apes or sea turtles or salamanders. Just humans in their natural human form. Including the man that sat across from me.
I’m doing good, he said.
He graduated from a prestigious New York film school. Was pursuing his passion. Having the time of his life. Learning a lot. Making friends. Meeting girls. Met a girl and they’re going steady.
How’s your mom?
She’s good, he said. Hanging in there, just like she had been all those years ago.
And then, out of the blue: I loved you.
And I said, Me too, even though I wanted to say I love you present tense.
I’ve missed you, he said.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what he expected me to say. So instead: You’ve been on quite the journey. I didn’t know if I was talking about New York film school or all his transformations.
But he nodded. My eyes fell to his neck, the memory of kissing him all over racing back in painful flashes. Then I noticed the necklace he wore. A black-spotted salamander. Just the same coloring and beady eyes as when I’d given it to him, hadn’t faded at all. And what’s more–he still wore it.
He saw my gaze and reached up, touching its ceramic body. Looked down at it, then up at me. You know, Annie. This town you live in is nearly as sad a place as when I left it.
He unhooked the necklace and set it on the table in front of me. Leaving a twenty between us, he stood and said, I needed to give this back to you.
Then he whispered, You can do better. I noticed a glint in his eye as we locked gazes.
He walked away, out the door of the coffee shop.
I never saw him again after that.
But I sat at that coffee shop table for a long while turning over his words in my head. The salamander’s body faced me, one eye staring, never allowing my gaze to drift.
Soon, his words morphed into a new translation, spurred from the salamander’s regrowth when faced with seemingly irreparable turmoil. New growth forges new opportunity, and maybe that’s what I needed for myself.