Not About Love, Ch 2: What if

Her deep brown eyes seem deeper in the low light, pupil and iris indistinguishable, like if you stared for long enough you would fall in. The moment she looks at me, a Thought reemerges; it has persisted through the day, slipping in through every crack, in between moments of mental resolve:

What if?

It’s a tiny, buzzing bug. A gnat. A swarm of gnats. This morning, as I yank on my standard blue jeans and plain t-shirt, late for class, The Thought crowds my mind, tiny black bugs zipping around, impossible to ignore and nearly so to swat away.

What if she did?

I ignore it, I walk away, out the door and along the cracked sidewalk and through perpetual road construction on my way to campus. But now The Thought is an itch, and I scratch it just to find it’s moved from my shoulder blades to the top of my head, and from there to my leg, and then my arm, demanding attention as it spreads to the corners of the body. My skin prickles. My mind fights its own reflexes.

It could happen.

I ignore it. I attend my classes. I make my brain think other thoughts, solve other puzzles. And now it’s a flame. I think that’s what it is now, it doesn’t obey the laws of thermodynamics: it grows as I repress it, it heats as I starve it. I stamp out the kindling and it rises up and my body ignites, and I cannot hold in the energy, and I wonder how the world isn’t ablaze.

Maybe she’ll choose me.

We’re on the rooftop. I’m starting to get angry as she refuses to acknowledge how messed up this all has been for me. But then she turns on me, and The Thought comes screaming from the back of my mind where I had failed all day to hold it under water. What if she-

“Can we still hang out? Talk? I really do love when we talk.” I don’t think she means it, but the words are effective. The fire dies, the itch fades, the bug catches in my mouth and I spit it out.

“No. I can’t do that.” It’s the truth. I’m not an emotional masochist. We exchange a few closing pleasantries, the standard band-aids of support as we both pretend the ending wasn’t written before we started. One of us suggests she goes home, and with a groan– more posturing than necessity– we stand, shake tiny crumbs of black shingle off our pants, hop over the rail and step, cautiously in the dark, down the back landing staircase. My shoes crunch the small pebbles left on the pavement from the spring melt. I breathe in the season, the snow and brisk become blossoms and aroma, and in a weak split-second wherein I realize we’ve both been silent since the rooftop, I nearly comment on the weather. I opt instead for a laden, “Goodnight” which comes out all wrong, and which she echoes just as uncomfortably before getting in her car.

The car starts and begins to reverse out of the yellow lines. And then I feel, as if cued like a switch to the blink of my eye, the flame inside roar to a pitch. My skin, all of it, prickles. My vision swarms.

What if…

What if I stopped her? The car is now at the end of the lot, pausing for just a moment as she looks left, then right, then left again before pulling forward into the road. She turns right and accelerates. Which means she’ll have to brake again, shortly, for the stop sign at the end of the block. I can catch her. I feel electric. How long have my hands been in my pockets? I’m sprinting now, I cut between parked cars and vault the chain link fence separating our lot from the neighbor’s front walk. One, two, three steps it takes me to cross the neighbor’s, over the sidewalk, and now I cut loose on the open road. Her glowing red brake lights bob to my step, and grow in size. I’m gaining. A few drops of rain threaten to obscure my vision, but I keep running, running, why am I not breathing, breathe, not fast enough, faster, breathe! The car is halted now, in front of the stop sign at the intersection. I have one more second, maybe. But it’s halted for too long– she sees me! I break my pursuit, fifty feet from the car, but keep walking. My lungs at last catch up with my brain, and I gasp in breath along with a chill of fear. What am I doing?

What if…

What if she’s angry? I keep walking along the darkened road, but slow my pace, cautious. I can’t really see what’s happening on her side of the car, through a watery back windshield, across forty feet of night lit only by street lamps and tail lights, reflected in running streams like water-colors. Her door opens and she steps out, overcoat upturned against the drizzle. Her voice pierces the dark.

“What are you doing?” She’s still got one foot in the car. I can’t tell if she’s just surprised, or scared, or mad. I freeze. We both stand, clothes taking on more and more rainwater, seconds and minutes passing at the same rate. I find my voice,

“I couldn’t-” no, that’s not it, “It was a mistake, all… everything I said.” My feet are moving again, slowly toward her. To my relief she steps fully out of the car and reciprocates the motion. In for a penny: I’m running again, jogging, and again she reacts in kind. In a moment the distance between us vanishes. We both come to a stop inches from each other. I look at her, I take in her whole face, she looking up at me through peril of rainfall, and I finally, mercifully, release The Thought.

“I want you.” The stupid words find freedom from my lips, and sanctuary in her eyes. She smiles, raises her right hand to my chest, then grips my shirt as she stretches herself toward me. I lean forward and allow my arms to pull her up and in, and there, standing in the rain, we-

What if…

Her car pulls out of the lot, turns right, and drives into the night. I watch her go, and then turn around, hands in pockets, and take a moment to look up, up at the rooftop and further to the smokey sky. It was a lovely thought, such a cinematic moment, but it would never be. Life isn’t a two-dimensional story, told over a few hours, all significant events packed neatly with cut scenes and fate-driven narrative. Life is the long game. Life is more dead ends than open roads, and so is this story.

This isn’t the story about how I fell in love. This isn’t even about love. This is the story of every girl I’ve never loved, and a few things in between. And it truly begins when I was 9 years old.

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