Not About Love, Ch 2: What if

I admit it’s a test, but let me defend myself. Actions don’t speak louder than words because actions don’t speak. They must be watched, carefully, and far before that happens people have already heard what they want to hear.

_

“Not a mistake.” I see her frame trembling, clenched hands and tense brow, but her voice is quiet and steady. I wonder if this is what she came here to say, if she practiced all morning to make sure nothing faltered, if she chose this moment for me to look up at her and know it is time to listen; so I listen, but she says nothing else. We both listen. We let the waning world speak its goodnight to the dusky glow of setting sun, the twilight’s quiet cut only by city sounds, and a few chirped words between evening birds, and our own asynchronous breaths.

What if?

The thought seizes upon the vacancy of dialogue. I’m tired and I don’t want to fight it.

What if she did?

This morning I found out she was getting married. It first reared then, this thought: nasty, tiny and buzzing but persistent, like a gnat too small to swat away, and then two, and then a swarm. The buzzing cloud followed to campus, obscuring my vision, filling my nose and mouth, crawling through my ears.

She could. Maybe she should.

The thought dug its way under my shirt, into my skin, down my legs, irritating and spreading over my body. No matter how much I clawed through the cotton, raked my fingers over denim, pulled my hair into clutched tufts I could not scratch it into submission. I fidgeted and squirmed and writhed in every seat in every class through the day but could not quell the itch.

Tell her. Ask her. It’s what you want. It’s what you deserve.

The thought ignited my whole mind. The flame only grew as I tried to repress it. I walked home, half delirious as waves of heat pulsed through my body. I could not understand how the whole world was not ablaze.

What if?

I don’t remember how I found my way to my room. I remember fumbling with my keys. I remember difficulty breathing. I remember my head feeling too heavy. I remember the merciful cool of my sheets.

What if she chooses me?

We’re on the rooftop. She’s facing me, I feel her eyes trying to crack my skull. An impulse grabs me and I break the silence.

“Do you love me?” It’s an insane question. It feels insane as it slips between my teeth and into the cold air. But it is not the wrong question. The only thing missing from the last three weeks, between us, were more days. I turn to find her eyes–deep chocolate pools, easy to get lost in–and I set my teeth. She takes her cue to look away. I watch the last sliver of daylight cut across her cheekbone. I watch it fade.

“Clark, I… have to go.” The words reach me but don’t make sense. I hear her footsteps cross the rooftop, and carry her down the ladder. I hear a door sigh open and clunk shut. I’m staring at her outline as though it might give me a different answer.

An answer?

I jump to my feet so fast I nearly lose balance. I dash across the roof and swing over the ladder, landing at its base without touching a single rung. In through the window, I sprint through the apartment and out the front door. I nearly trip again down the building stairs. Outside, I see her car pulling out of the parking lot. There’s a stop sign at the end of the street. A few drops of rain fall among the hairs standing straight on the back of my neck. The road is deserted except for her, and soon me. The cold feels sharp in my lungs. In one, two, three steps I’m through the gate and 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. The rain starts in earnest and threatens to obscure my vision, but I keep running. The car reaches the end of the road and stops. It stays stopped–she sees me! I break my pursuit, fifty feet from the car, but keep walking. In with the next gasp of breath comes a chill of fear.

What am I doing?

“What are you doing?” She’s cracked the door, trying to see me and stay dry. I can’t tell if she’s just surprised, or scared, or mad. I halt, forty feet away.

“You never said ‘no’.” The world around us soaks in rainfall, darkens. She puts a foot on the ground, pulls half her body out to face me.

“What?” She puts two feet on the ground, takes a step, shuts the door. All I can see are taillights and her profile, stark against the shimmering glow of streetlamps. We both stand, clothes taking on more and more rainwater, seconds and minutes passing at the same rate. Then I take another step. Thirty eight feet.

“You never answered my question.” Another step; thirty six feet. “You left but you never said ‘no’.” Thirty four.

“And you didn’t take the hint?” She now starts toward me. Thirty. We shout through the rain.

“I don’t want a hint, I want an answer!” Twenty.

“I… It’s complicated.” Ten.

“It’s not. Either tell me you don’t love me, or stay.” Five. The cold air pierces through my nose and invigorates my mind. It hurts my lungs and makes me brave. One. She’s looking up at me, blinking against the downpour. I find three more words before my courage expires:

“Be with me.”

Her face is half-illuminated in a street lamp. I see the glint of her smile in the low light. I see her eyes sparkle. She grabs the front of my waterlogged shirt and pulls me toward her.

“I can’t believe you almost let me go.”

Ding!

I wake up to the sound of her text. She agrees we need to talk. Thirty minutes later we’re on the roof.

“Not a mistake.” I see her frame trembling, clenched hands and tense brow, but her voice is quiet and steady. I look in her eyes, and we breathe in the silence, listening. After a few seconds I break it.

“Do you love him?” It’s the only rational question. And even though I look away, I know the answer, and I can feel her nod.

“Yes.” She speaks in the same steady voice, nearly a whisper. I hear the words and accept them. We talk for longer, about being friends and thankful we met each other regardless. Eventually, I’m not sure when, she places a hand on my shoulder, and then stands, and I hear her footsteps cross the rooftop and step down the ladder. I hear the apartment door open and close.

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