“I have to take this,” he said, and answered the call as he walked into the bedroom. He shut the door, muffling his conversation. She listened for awhile, but unable to catch more than a few words here and there, turned back to her book.
The sun drifted lower and cast an orange glow on the room when she realized the conversation had stopped. She started for the bedroom but noticed a shadow on the balcony. She opened the door and stepped into the sunset. He sat on the porch swing but it wasn’t swaying, his head in his hands, his cellular phone next to his leg. She sat next to him and pulled his head out from between his knees to find his eyes wet.
“Fuck, I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his face. “You shouldn’t have to see that.”
“Oh, shut up. It’s about time I have a human moment from you.”
“There’s something I need to–”
He sighed. “Yeah.”
They sat silently, but not awkwardly, before he asked how she knew.
“I saw you tagged in a photo on Facebook,” she said. “From the engagement party.”
“You don’t have Facebook.”
“You left your computer open.”
“Whitney Ellis Lawrence,” she said slowly. “I should have known.”
“She was always a sure candidate.”
“She’s not a natural blonde.”
“Really? Her mother is blonde.”
“Her mother is in her fifties. It’s from a bottle.”
“And her father–”
She tried to feel some sort of satisfaction but it escaped her; she leaned back into the seat and stared out at the ocean, at the sunset. He followed her gaze to find the sky broken open, awash in color. He closed his eyes and the glow of the sunset permeated through his eyelids. He thought back to how she showed him color, when he first saw her skin, smooth and flawless like porcelain; her hair tumbled down her back and danced like the flames of which they were made and he could almost feel it burn. He told her once that her eyes reminded him of kiwis and she laughed and it was musical and then, sitting next to her on the porch swing swaying in the sea breeze, he doubted he’d ever hear it again.
“Who called?” she asked.
“My mother.” The image of his mother hung stagnant in the air and they both individually tried to move past it. She didn’t prod him for more but he felt compelled to explain further. “She wants me to come home.”
“Does she know you’ve run off to the Jersey Shore with ‘the bleeding-heart homewrecker?’”
“She was rather miffed I didn’t go to our summer home in the Hamptons. They just redid the basement, you know.”
“Oh, but of course.”
“How long have you known?” The melancholy was audible in his tone.
“Since a few weeks after our first date.”
“I wasn’t even engaged to her then.”
“You didn’t have to be. I knew anyway.”
“Did my mother…oh, God, I swear–”
“It wasn’t your mother,” she stopped him, and they both felt the bite–perhaps intended, perhaps not–in her tone. “I knew even before she told me.”
“So she did say something.”
“That’s not the point that I’d be focusing on if I were you.”
“Fair enough” his voice was suddenly hoarse. He surveyed the balcony and the coastal scene below. “Why did we even come here?”
“I’ve known you’re going to leave me for some airhead communications major at Vassar of your parents’ choosing for longer than you have,” she said in almost a whisper. “And ever since I came to that realization, not a day has gone by that my mother hasn’t asked if I’ve left you yet. I needed to get away from that. I think we both knew that this was unraveling. I think we’ve known for awhile now.”
“Yes, you have. I think both of us knew before we knew, if that makes any sense. Like a subconscious realization. But we’d be lying if we said this is something unexpected.”
“You need someone to tell you when you’re wrong.”
She took a risk and asked, “Does Whitney tell you when you’re wrong?”
“I don’t want to talk about her,” he said, but it was a lie. “But no, she doesn’t. I doubt she ever will. She’ll sacrifice any part of herself if she thinks it’s not fit for the world to see. She’s not like you.”
She didn’t know what to say to that.
“She’s actually a very nice girl..”
“Oh, do tell..”
“You just don’t know her well enough.”
“I shouldn’t have to, I’m not the one marrying her.”
“Hey,” he said sternly. His eyes bore right through hers.
She felt her face get hot and awkwardly busied herself with adjusting the silver charm bracelet on her wrist. Tentatively, sheepishly, she asked, “What’s she like?”
“She’s very goofy and childlike sometimes,” he said, his eyes clouding with memories. “It’s rather charming, but she’s so concerned with keeping up appearances that you’d never know she had it in her.”
“That’s a shame.”
“There was this one time around Christmas when her family was staying with us,” he smiled as he spoke and she looked away. “It was two in the morning or so, and I go down to the kitchen to get some ice cream, but there she is eating it already. I couldn’t even be mad at her. She was in a t-shirt with her hair up and chocolate ice cream was all over her mouth and for a second there when we saw each other it was like when we were kids and we laughed for a moment. But then she immediately apologized and took her hair down and hurried back to her room.”
“Do you think she’ll open up more as time goes on?”
“I honestly don’t know. I hope so. Every once in awhile, when I get those moments, I think, ‘maybe this won’t be so bad.’”
She stared straight into the sun, blinking furiously. When she looked at him again, he said, “She talks about you sometimes.”
“What horrid things does she say about me?”
“She doesn’t,” he said softly. “She envies you I think.”
“A girl like that doesn’t envy anybody.”
“I thought we were done cutting on her.”
“No, no, not like that–it’s just that she has everything.”
“What, the money? The status?” he scoffed. “I’m surprised. That doesn’t sound like you.”
“That’s not what I meant. Never mind. What does she say?”
“Well, you remember that religion class.”
“Of course I do.”
“You know Whitney and I were dating at the time.”
“I’m well aware.”
“And she always talked about how smart you were.”
“What? I never answered any of the questions.”
“Exactly!” he said. “You asked new ones. You were the only person in that class who opened their mouth, Whitney and I were in the corner commenting on everything you said. She loved–oh what was it?–the way you read the Bible, or your perspective or something–”
“I read it just like any other book.”
“Yes, that was it.”
“I hated that teacher, Mr. Duphragne.”
“Oh, I hated him, too,” he sighed, running his hand through his overgrown hair. “When he found out about my dad’s involvement in the church he wouldn’t get off my back.”
“He got angry with me for talking so much,” she said, smiling. “And for asking too many questions.”
“And there lies the difference between you and me.”
“You know that book I was reading earlier? The big red one.”
“What about it?”
“It’s a book of Sufi poems. Mostly Rumi, some Hafiz. It’s his. I stole it from his library on the last day of school.”
“Is that your attempt at being a badass?”
The sun sank lower towards the sea, purple night creeping along the skyline like the heavy realization they’d been trying to avoid as they reminisced over time lost. The impending darkness brought with it a chill in the air and the two lovers’ skin began to prickle in response to the sea breeze.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked her, eyes ahead, trying desperately to fixate on something in the sky, but the stars had not come out yet.
“‘You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.’”
“Reminds me of The Prophet. I like it.”
“I wish I could do that, get immersed in something like that. It’s so cool to see something you’ve never understood light up in someone else.”
She wanted to say that he did the same thing with sports, and that even though she complained he was loud, yelling at the television when he watched a soccer game, she secretly enjoyed seeing him happy and boyish, but she held back.
They sat in silence some more and then they both opened their mouths to speak at the same time.
“You first,” he said.
“I was going to say that we need to stop skirting around the issue.”
“Not yet.” He leaned toward her to touch her, but she stiffened. “Are you mad?”
“No, I’m not, but the fact that you’d assume that frustrates me a bit,” she shot back.
“I just need to know if you’re going to be okay.”
“You should know better by now.” He caught her eyes and they were blazing. Her mouth was small and taught.
He sank into the seat as her words sank into him. He remembered when he dropped by her house one day and the door was ajar; he pushed through and found her huddled in a ball on the kitchen floor, shaking and hyperventilating, a small bag of fine white powder strewn across the tile.
“Yes,” she gasped, her chest heaving behind her knees.
“Oh, my God.” His world stopped. “It’s going to be okay, we’re going to get through this–”
“It’s not like that–”
“We’ll get you help–”
“I’m going to call your parents, they should be on their way here from work, they can meet us at the hospital–”
“Just listen to me!” she shrieked, and he did. He’d never seen her so small. Her hair fell in front of her face as though she was hiding behind it. She looked helpless, like a child, her eyes wide, her lip quivering.
“I didn’t do it,” she whispered. “I didn’t do it.”
“But why do you even have it? Why is it here?”
“It’s a present.”
“What the fuck kind of a present is this? Who in the world–”
“Jack? Jack who? Who is Jack?”
“My old dealer.”
“Your old dealer? Old dealer? Like, you used to–”
“Yes,” and with that her face crumbled.
Things were different after that. When she was upset, he learned to let her be. Her tears were always silent, and they would pass eventually. Months after that day in her kitchen, he tried to reach out. It was the last time he ever did.
“I don’t understand,” he pleaded.
“Because there’s nothing for you to understand. It doesn’t concern you.”
“How can you say that? I love you. I see you upset, of course it concerns me.”
“Getting upset is a natural part of life. There’s no use getting worked up over it.”
“Am I really that out of line?” he asked. “Is it so hard for you to be loved? Because then maybe there are more issues that we need to address–”
“No!” she almost shouted, sweeping the hair and exasperation away from her forehead.
“Then what is it?”
“There’s just nothing you can do.”
“Now you’re being dramatic.”
“Shut up for a second!” she collapsed into a chair.
He didn’t say anything.
“When I say that there’s nothing you can do, I mean it,” she spoke slowly, tasting her words for poison. “I pulled myself out of that shithole. I got myself in there, and I got myself out. I learned how to be okay and survive. Who I am now–I built her. I fought to become her.”
“I know that, and you’re wonderful–”
“So when things get bad,” she interrupted him, raising her voice slightly. “I need to make myself okay. And I can’t use you for that.”
“I can’t even help?”
“Nothing lasts forever. When it comes down to it, ourselves are all we really ever have.”
“It was so hard not be hurt by that,” he said. “I was, for a long time. But I get it now.”
“It’s the only way I know how to survive,” she said softly.
“I really admire you for that, your strength. You don’t take help from anyone.”
“You’re independent, and pave your own way, and do what you want, and you’ve made yourself a great life.”
“I’d like to think so.”
“But,” he started again, “one of the great things about being with someone is that we pave that way together.”
“That’s like being married.”
“Then we could get married.”
“You’re already engaged to another woman.”
“I could say no.”
The words flowed into her and she felt her blood pump faster. “But you’re not going to.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I’m too young to get married.”
“Age is but a number.”
“So are you.”
She wanted to ask what he meant, but she already knew. They both knew, but continued to pretend as though they didn’t. The sea had almost completely swallowed the sun. It was a sliver now, barely peeking above the water. A shard of fiery red light cut across the porch swing and slowly passed over their thighs, their hands, down to their knees before it would eventually slip off the balcony…
He tried to touch her again. He swung his arm around her shoulders and when she stiffened, he only pulled her closer.
“Please,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “Please.”
The red light fell off the balcony. The sun was gone, engulfed by the sea. The watercolor sky was melting, dripping into the horizon. Darkness was setting in. The moon, a near perfect circle, had begun to wane into a gibbous, but nevertheless cast an ethereal glow over the beach. The waves were crashing, cars were honking, barbeques were cooking, children were screaming–but on the balcony, the world was silent, save for the constant pulsing of two out of sync heartbeats. Tired and defeated, the lovers lay quietly in the moonlight, the porch swing swaying in the evening breeze.