I don’t like talking about myself. If I tell people who I am, I am far more likely to be misunderstood than if I just show them.
She could have told me yesterday. She should have told me three weeks ago, or on any one of the chilled January walks, warmed by good conversation and laughter, in all the days since. But yesterday, watching the evening sky bleed black, lying on quilt on frozen shingle on my favorite rooftop spot, swathed in woolly layers, speaking of everything between us through vapor of breathe — almost everything, reminds the rueful voice in my mind; yesterday, she really should have told me.
Now the only force on earth which could stop me pacing redundancies into the bedroom carpet comes in the sharp chime of my phone. I see the text on the screen before picking it up.
I seize the device; but, in the clarity of a deep breathe, think better of my haste. I turn the screen off, put the phone in my pocket, and preoccupy myself with a peeling chip of grey paint on the wall. The tiny patch of white underneath bespeaks the lack of care that went into layering, undoubtedly the handiwork of some under-the-table “friends and family” discount painter. I dig under the flap with my middle fingernail and finish its detachment. And then I rub down the uncovered layer using the pad of my finger as a soft sanding paper. And then I walk to the trash to properly dispose of the small shaving. And now, I revisit my phone.
She should have told me! The voice again fights to the surface of thought as I pull my arms through coat sleeves. I fight it back down. I’ve rehearsed what I’m going to say. I’ve written three different speeches, practiced my words and her words and my responses. I’ve fielded both sides of a hundred conversations, in the shower, walking to school, ignoring my classes, on the bus to work, clock in, clock out, back home. I will not let anger dictate tonight, and my resolve steels with the intake of brisk air as I climb through the window on my way to the roof.
She’s sitting there already, hugging knees to chest, looking out over the tiny city block oasis of trees and grass boxed in by parking structures. I find my footing, close the window behind, and crab walk down the incline to sit next to her. During the summer, we — my roommates and I — would string Christmas lights across the gap from our roof to the big hackberry tree at the edge of the grass. From below, the twinkling canopy made for a romantic walk in an otherwise dreary cityscape. Sitting above, however, those strings of light became a wondrous compliment to the few stars brave enough to shine through the smog. On those nights, this quiet rooftop spot became a cosmic place, a vessel from which to pluck the best ideas floating somewhere between heaven and earth.
Tonight, there are no lights between the house and the bare branched tree. We sit for a few minutes without a word, simply watching the daylight fade. I have a version of my speech ready for for breaking a long silence, and so I inhale deeply, swallow, and am about to deliver the measured words when she speaks.
“How–” But I don’t wait to hear the question.
“Why didn’t you tell me!?” So much for hiding the anger. I grit my teeth in the second silence, following my outburst. But now it was out, I let it stand: I had a right to anger, a right to know how I got here, and above all I wanted her to say something stupid enough that I could actually be mad at her. I wanted to hate her. For three weeks she lied to me, and I wanted to want to hurt her for it. Yet, for all I felt like the piano beneath her musician’s fingers, I could not blame the pianist for playing a beautiful song.
“You’re right. I should have.” She speaks quietly, a sound almost pitiful and almost enough to make me feel bad for yelling.
“Yes, you should have.” My voice is steadier now, even though these are none of the words I had planned. I was going to tell her that I needed to walk away from this. I was going to assuage her of guilt, because I was much less vindictive than I had the right to be. I was going to say something funny and disarming about the night we met, three weeks ago when she came dancing into the party with her signature mix of energy bristling from exotic skin, and wit behind a sly smile which played around her big brown eyes even when her lips were still. She was petite and pretty (so was everyone; it was a New Year’s party for tiny pretty people, two of the many reasons I did not belong), but when she opened her mouth one knew those lips held more language in them, those eyes had read more books, that skin had pressed more ink into more lined paper than anyone else in any room in which she might ever dance.
A chilled gust brings my mind back to present. The cold is an effective retardant against the pulsing of heat through my body, quelled in waves with each intake of sharp air.
“So.” I give the word the full weight of my exhaled breath, and allow it to sink, to ebb out of reach while I gather myself for the next part, the part I have choked down, against which I have bitten my tongue, for fear my speaking it would call it into existence, and perhaps otherwise it is nothing but a shadow. In the sickest part of my mind I realize I want to go on, to ignore the shadow despite its size and turn my back on the occulter. The perverseness of this thought alone makes me finally say the words:
“You’re getting married.” I now turn to face her. And she responds in kind, and even though her watering eyes impossibly magnify their natural potency, I match the gaze unwavering. Though it is not a question, she answers with a slight nod.
“Yes.” Her eyebrows lift, wrinkling her smooth skin into lines of concern. I realize she is not trying to look the sad, wounded puppy-dog — she is looking at me as though I am. My fists ball and my jaw clenches and I successfully hold back another wave of anger.
“Do you love him?” I push the words through my teeth.
“Yes.” The response is nearly the same, but in it I see an honest intention.
“It’s fine,” I sigh, and my body releases a cascade of tensed muscles, “neither of us expected this. It was a mistake, and we just need to –” but my words are cut short.
She has stood, abruptly, remarkable considering the slope of the rooftop, and I am now looking up at eyes in which tears have been replaced with fire. Her hands are fists, and she is breathing heavy, and I cannot honestly tell whether I am about to be kissed passionately or pummeled.
to be continued…