I let my fingers trace her cheek and glide down her neck which always makes me think of a soft, snow-covered hill the way it dips down and away into her shoulder. Her dark brown hair is in disarray this early in the morning and her other cheek wears little lines from where she was resting upon a pillow. I know she sees herself as very common in these moments but I kiss her forehead and her nose and one cheek and then the other and I tell her for the millionth time that her parents should have named her Angelica as I put a kiss on each eyelid which shields her emerald eyes from the early morning sun.

Not Angel.

An angel is perfect in a way that humans should never be. Angelica is the name of one who is as close to angelic as one can be while still being mortal. Still being imperfect in all those gentle, beautiful, chaotic little ways that angels never could be.

I tell her that angels would be so lucky to be a fraction of who she is. Even half of who she’ll always be.

She won’t believe me, of course, because our world works in overtime to tell women how imperfect they are.

How beautiful they’d be, if only…

How perfect they were before…

How amazing they might have been…

A whole world using past-tense phrases and back-handed compliments.

It’s why I hear men say things in that coarse, ogrish way that makes it sound like some women would be so lucky to share a bed with them. After all, they’d never give a second thought to that woman. He wouldn’t deign to kiss her.

Fast forward to the same man with a woman who would seem little more than ember to the brilliance of the many who he so easily slighted.

Never a word of apology.

Just a trail of women being told they weren’t quite enough by men who should never have the audacity to make such outrageous claims.

I know she’s self-conscious about her body but I let my fingers trace a stomach that she sees as “not quite what it used to be” but which is, to me, just as it was meant to be and I leave a kiss upon her lips and I slip out of bed with an image of her shy smile burned into my mind like I’d just been staring at the sun.

Perhaps I feel the way I do because I spent so many years feeling very much the same.

Not quite enough.

Not the smartest guy in any class. Not on any sports team. The closest thing I had to athleticism was limited to my skills at sports in the form of a video game.

I didn’t come from wealth and I knew I wasn’t heading there.

I’ve never so much as seen a yacht let alone think I’ll be someone who’ll ever get to own one.

But love happens even when you’re not looking for it and sometimes you find a happiness you never thought possible because you have a moment of “what if” and so you take the step. You say the words. You put your hand out, fearful that it’ll be slapped away. You stand there, hesitant – no less terrified than if you were offering it to a hungry lion.

And that’s when miracles happen.

That’s when love happens.

At work, things are moving along as normal and it’s the kind of routine that brings me a kind of comfort that some people just never find.

Not three minutes in and they’re paging me to the primary induction units.

“You see this shit?” Danny says to me at such a distance I can barely hear him over the hum of the nearby units, the dysrhythmic thumps and thuds of various other machines that are so large and so powerful that they could put a hole through a six-inch plate of steel without skipping a beat.

Two years ago, one of those machines had an alignment issue and it sheared a piece of metal, struck at an angle, and shot through the Lexan shielding. It ripped through Scott Nelson’s left arm and he bled to death before he reached the hospital.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how his wife looked when I saw her there.

Shannon Nelson – widow at age 27. Her short, black hair falling like a little curtain before her face to help her hide her tears. Ghost white. Drained of life as much as her husband.

Her color had returned when I saw her at the funeral, but her eyes looked almost hollow. Vacant. A ghost left all alone in the world. All the light that should have been glowing from those beautiful, hazel eyes – that were probably gifted a fraction of the compliments they deserved – left so sad and forever searching for a reason as to why life has to be like this.

Today, the problem wasn’t anything of the sort.

One of the diffuse laser sensors apparently had a glitch of some sort and so the values had reset to factory default. The guys who were on the job overnight didn’t notice but now there’re three people with different versions of the word “manager” in their title, two guys from the tool room, and three operators standing around like it’s a construction site that’s government-funded.

An entire shift’s worth of work is sitting to the side, segregated for manual inspection. The kind of job everyone hates.

I look at the sensor and cycle through its settings as easily as a man cracking his knuckles and put all the settings back to where they need to be without needing to look at the binder full of setting specifications.

In truth, it’s an easy mistake to make.

The sensor doesn’t alert you if there’s an electrical glitch because the glitch resets it. From the outside, it seems fine. The lights are blinking away like everything is working as expected.

The problem is that distance and precision is everything. How far the laser can see tells the machine everything it needs to know and when you can’t see what you need to see, you can’t do what you need to do. Your triggers don’t activate right. Your readings lag. Your values are allowed to deviate.

It doesn’t take a lot of variegation in what’s seen and what isn’t for things to go sideways.

William Carson – who goes by Bill – asks me, “So what’s the damage?”

The other managers look at Bill because Bill is the kind of manager that the other managers look to and Bill doesn’t understand anything that wasn’t built before 1987, so Bill looks to me.

I could tell him that the internal couplings are unsynchronized or that the impedance has created latency which made the unit trigger a default state error condition.

None of those are real things, by the way, but I could say any of that and everyone would just nod along like they understood and then they’d just ask the question they’re really asking: Can we salvage production? How much of this do we have to scrap?

I know the answer to the question I’m about to ask but I don’t like to assume so I say, “Who was running this machine last night?”

Danny looks away like a father that doesn’t want to rat on his son. Bill scrunches his face up and I’m sure that part of the reason why is because he doesn’t care who did it as much as he wants my diagnosis. Franklin Edwards – the manager who manages less than Danny or Bill – has the look of man who is just now realizing this might matter and he might need to know the answer for later.

Jessica – one of the few women that they’ve let do what Bill calls “a man’s job” – chimes in and says, “Jackson.”

Jessica is in a rather “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position if I’m being honest.

She can throw a coworker under the bus and her coworkers hate her for it.

She can keep her mouth shut and management will hate her for it. I know Danny hired her because he thought she was pretty and he smokes near the area where she works and he knew he could stare at her all day like a stalker while he fantasizes about her blond hair and her bold, blue eyes like she was his own personal stripper.

She can’t win for losing.

Personally, I’ve never understood that phrase, but it’s not my battle and it’s not my hill to die on.

Knowing what I know about what I know – which is more than three managers, two tool room personnel, and three operators put together – I say, “The range was off, but there’s a secondary prox that actually catches some of this. It’s not its primary function – it’s more of an incidental. Divide it out into roughly even sections of ten, do a consistency and concentricity check. If any of the spot checks come back with a fail rate of over three per hundred, it’s all garbage.”

Bill lets out that sigh he does when he feels like someone just kicked him in the wallet. I know he’s trying to figure out if there’s a way to make “more than two per hundred” salvageable without saying it and so I say, “This actually happened a few months ago. Different production, but same type of problem. It came back at a rate of one per hundred in eight sections, and two per hundred in the other two. If that’s any indication, we should be fine.”

Bill doesn’t let out a sigh of relief, but he does that little head nod he does when he thinks he just won a battle by being nearby when someone else was making decisions for him.

When break time comes at work, there are those people that are immediately on their phones.

Some are just killing time. Endlessly swiping at nothing. Moving little pieces of candy around so they can hear the joyous sound of a pattern match while other pieces of candy fall into the new vacancies.

Arnold is on a phone texting and, from time to time, taking a different phone from his lap to text on that as well.

I don’t know what Arnold is up to, but I know we don’t have company cell phones. I also know that his wife is four months pregnant and I’ve heard him say more than once that he’s working overtime even though his name hasn’t been on an overtime schedule in weeks.

It’s not my place, but sometimes it’s hard not to make it my place.

On the polar opposite side of the spectrum is William – not William Carson, William Carlson – and he specifically goes by William because he specifically does not want to be called by the same name as William Carson.

William is on his phone and talking to his girlfriend of seven years, Amanda. William talks to her every break. He talks to her every spare chance he gets.

I’d love to say it’s because they just love each other that much. It would be wonderful to see that kind of commitment. A level of depth that, after all those years, they can still find things to talk about every two hours on an eight-hour day.

I know that’s not the case.

If William doesn’t call, Amanda will think he’s cheating on her.

He once came home and she thought he smelled like perfume. She almost broke his arm with a golf club before throwing their new flatscreen TV in the front yard.

Even after the cops came, nothing happened. After all, he didn’t want to make her mad.

I know he’s not making things better. He knows he’s not making things better.

She doesn’t trust him any more now than she did back then. She just thinks he’s only cheating on her during other times of the day. It’s a battle that’ll never end.

It’s a battle he’ll never win.

If you asked him why he’s with her, he’ll say he loves her and I feel painfully certain he has no idea what that word means.

I don’t call home at break. I don’t text throughout the day. I don’t need to.

We don’t need to.

I know better than to be “that guy” though. The one who lets everyone know how great things can be. The one who doesn’t need two cell phones and an alibi. The one who doesn’t need to check in with his heart-warden.

It’s a tragedy in the world that so many people have to fit themselves into a shape that they can never fully maintain for the illusion of something that they’re holding onto because they’ve gone their whole life thinking that it was just “what you do”.

Jessica isn’t in the break room – she’s in her area helping to spot check parts that she didn’t run because she thinks if she does her level best, then Bill will see more than the equivalent of an affirmative action hire and her male coworkers will stop staring at her every time she bends over to pick something up.

Part of me wishes I could tell her something nice. Something beautiful. Something to let her know that it’s not her. It’s this place. It’s this world. It’s all messed up and it’s cruel and it’s callous and it doesn’t care how much it hurts her because if she complains they’ll call her weak, and if she doesn’t they’ll just ignore her.

I don’t say any of that because I know if I do, William will eventually ask me if I’ve “hit that yet” and Jacob – who works in the same area – will tell me that it’s not a good idea to mix work and pleasure and then he’ll look around cautiously and say, “But man, if I wasn’t married…”

I stick around late because, as things tend to work out, something always seems to go wrong when there’s an hour left in the day and they need it fixed two hours ago, and it’s gonna take three hours to get it done.

I send a text then. Just a little heart. It’s really all that’s needed even though she knows she’s had mine for as long as I knew she existed.

Jackson – who steadfastly goes by Jackson, which I think is weird because Jackson sounds like a last name and his last name is Arnold, which sounds like a first name, but he doesn’t want to go by Arnold because we have an Arnold and Jackon thinks that Arnold is kind of a dick – comes in while I’m still there and I’ve a feeling that it’s not a good sign that he’s there on the shift before his normal shift.

I recognize the look because I’ve seen it before. I recognized it when I saw it on him two days ago.

I won’t try to shove the world into a nice, neat box of “I know everything fits together” but, in my opinion, everyone who’s ever lost someone they cared about – truly cared about – has an abandonment issue. It only takes the one time.

Prior to that, everyone is filled to overflowing with lines such as “maybe it’s for the best” or “they would have wanted you to move on” or “plenty of fish in the sea” or “make this your new beginning” depending on the type of loss and the arrogance of the person speaking.

Jackson might currently be worried about repercussions at work, but that’s barely secondary to the look he’s been carrying around recently.

I never know what to say to someone in those moments.

“I know the woman you loved just left you and your heart is broken and you feel like life is ending and from this point forward you’ll never really feel the same again and there’s no way to make that less true and so all that’s left is to hurt and learn how to make that seem bearable.”

It’s the truth – but it’s not what anyone should ever say and so I don’t say it because I can’t imagine how it would feel to hear those words and to know how painfully true they really are.

Truth doesn’t heal the pain. Lies don’t do it any favors either.

There’s not a lot of good coping mechanisms, if I’m being honest. Every avenue from that point just sucks. There’s no nice way to put it. No clever platitude.

It just sucks.

I think back to my own loss. The one that really mattered. I think about when I was younger and I tried to say those same things to other people and how I felt like these were really valuable words. After all, what can you do?

What else can you really do?

Sometimes gone is gone.

It’s worse when the gone is voluntary.

Nothing hurts worse than someone letting you know that they just don’t love you anymore. You’re not separated by death or inadvertent tragedy. There’s nothing cinematic about it. There’s nothing hopeful.

It’s just this giant splinter of fear and pain and anger and sadness that digs into you and you want more than anything to pull it out but the only thing you have left of what used to be love is the pain and if you pull the splinter out the wound starts to heal and then…

That’s it.

It’s over.

You’re healed but never really healed.

You’re whole but never really whole.

And then someone says you’ll be okay. There’s plenty of fish in the sea. Maybe it’s for the best.

And you don’t understand how someone can be so painfully callous.

So cruelly insensitive.

So unaware of the depth of your sorrow.

I can’t say anything of any real meaning but I know I tried to soften the damage by trying to salvage what he did the night before. I don’t know that it’ll amount to much, but it’s all that I can give him.

It’s hard to be happy in moments like those.

It almost feels wrong. Undeserved.

Part of me doesn’t even want to say the name of the month in his presence. After all, her name was April.

Time moves on.

That much is true.

Jackson didn’t get fired, but his road back to something resembling okay is a long one.

Arnold is still playing games with two phones and a wife that’s five months pregnant.

William is still talking to his jailer and I wonder why the world has to be this way.

Jessica stopped showing up entirely and it’s amazing how much people look away very sheepishly at the notion that maybe – just maybe – she didn’t feel okay here. Maybe, just maybe, she just wanted to feel like a person first and woman second but she was perpetually trapped in a world where at any given moment six random men were talking about her like she was a prostitute because sex is transactional until it isn’t and then she’s a whore.

The day is smooth and Bill is gone on vacation so no one who’s in change knows how to be in charge because Bill might not know anything but he knows who to ask about things since no one who manages anything actually knows what they’re managing.

When I get home, I’m relieved to not be there with the rest of them. Their tired lives. Their pretense. I don’t understand how so many people have set the bar so low.

My love is already in bed. Her blond hair still in that state from just having woken up. Her eyes still looking soft with slumber so that I can’t see the blue beneath the lids.

I don’t like to make things break at work. I really don’t. But sometimes you have to break things if it’s for the right reasons.

What greater reason is there than love?

I never meant for Scott to die. I really didn’t.

I suppose it made it easier later on.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to say the words and I know that sometimes it’s hard for her to hear them. Sometimes she doesn’t want to hear how beautiful she is even though she’s so beautiful that words sometimes fail me. I say it anyway though. I take the step. I put my hand out and take the risk because this world is cold and cruel and it kept telling her over and over again she just wasn’t enough.

Shannon with those beautiful hazel eyes and her short black hair and her skin that smelled like vanilla and lavender. With that little scar where her appendix was removed, and I placed a dozen kisses there to tell her that even her scars were perfect. So very perfect.

April with her dark brown hair and her emerald green eyes and her stomach that she always tried so hard to hold in as though I could never love a woman who didn’t look like she could do laundry with a series of well-timed crunches. Her left ear which sat just a bit lower than her right so that she always had to fiddle with her glasses, but I ran my fingers along its edge and told her that she was lovely just the way she was. So very lovely.

Jessica, with her blond hair and blue eyes but who felt like, if she could just make men see her as a human first, she could finally let her see herself as a woman at all. I place a kiss upon her forehead and her nose and then both cheeks and then both eyelids and she’s not all that cold. Not just yet. I tell her I see her and I tell her she’s amazing. So very amazing.

I tell her her mother should have named her Angelica.

Not Angel.

Angels aren’t real. They’re the kind of perfection that can’t ever really be. The kind of perfection I would never want. The kind of perfection that men like Arnold use two cell phones to try to get. The kind of perfection that Bill is trying to purchase on the company credit card.

I tell her she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen and I mean it.

I look at her shy, little smile and I keep it with me like I was looking at the sun and it’s burned into my vision so I can see it when my eyes closed.

I tell her that we all have abandonment issues. Wounds from where love has left us. Pain from where love was carved away and never fully given back. Wounds that never really heal because the splinter takes more than we ever thought possible. Keeps taking after we remove it.

I hold her close and her skin is cool against my own. In her ear, I whisper, “I love you, Angelica. I promise I’ll never leave.”