You can’t help but rush in the city. There’s no such thing as a leisurely pace. And even I- possessor of the world’s most casual saunter- find myself marching double time, weaving around tourists and strollers and slow people urgently going absolutely nowhere, just like everyone else.
Somewhere around my 10th block, he catches my hand to stop me mid-stride. I whip my earphones out and spin around, ready to tell off some stranger but don’t find one. Instead I find the perfect smile I used to love on full display, dimples caved deep into his handsome face.
He says it the way he always says it, on an exhale, and I remember when I used to imagine that it was a tone reserved especially for me, like he’d been holding it deep in his throat.
I don’t imagine anymore.
“How are you?”
“I’m good. Everything is good. I’m good.”
“What are you doing in the city?”
“Our building is right up that way. What are you doing in town?”
“Lunch with some people about some stuff right in there,” he gestures vaguely to a steakhouse I hadn’t realized we were standing outside of.
“How are you?”
“Good. Just got a promotion.”
“Thank you, thank you. If I remember correctly, I was supposed to buy you something pretty once I got it.”
“And expensive. Pretty AND expensive. Please don’t forget that last part.”
He chuckles at me and takes the pause to look me over.
“You look great.”
“I’d forgotten how much I like your face.”
I don’t say anything. Because I know I shouldn’t. I meant what I’d said the last time we talked. And he knows me well enough to know that.
“I need to get back.”
“Me too. But… can I take you to dinner tonight?”
“Just dinner. Please.”
I agree and tell him to text me, before I disappear into the sea of people he’d pulled me from, becoming invisible again.
Hours later, we’re splitting a bottle of white and I’m marveling at how easy it all is. The way our shared history anchors the conversation that flows steadily. How easily we slipped back into the roles we played for each other; him taking the lead, me sitting back and pretending not to be pulling the strings. It’s warm and familiar. And comfortable. But it doesn’t fit. Not anymore.
We don’t notice the restaurant has closed down around us. We are catching up and laughing and flirting in that benign way you do when it’s habit, not intentional.
“Can I ask you a favor I don’t have the right to ask you?”
“Don’t go home yet. Come have another drink with me. I’d like to extend what could easily be the last conversation we’re going to have. And I’d like it to end much nicer than the last one.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I know you’re never coming back, La.”
We sit with that a minute, looking at each other and at all the ruins we’ve left in our wake. He’s wistful and I’m… changed.
We decamp to his hotel bar, sampling different whiskeys the bartender tells us about and having the kind of brutally honest conversation you have late at night when you’re drinking whiskey. Before long we’ve headed up to his room, one of his large hands wrapped around the neck of a bottle of whiskey gifted from the bartender we made friends with, the other folded over my smaller hand.
“I’m not spending the night,” I tell him as the door clicks shut behind us.
“I know you’re not,” he says more sadly than I’d thought he’d be.
He opens the blinds to the window overlooking the city and we settle into the couch in front of it, his tie undone and my now bare feet in his lap. We pass the bottle back and forth, our pours and our words getting more reckless as we get deeper into the bottle.
“I kept waiting for you to come back to me,” he tells me suddenly, his eyes shiny and sad. “It took me a long time to realize you weren’t. And even longer to realize I was the reason you weren’t.”
It seems like he’s at the opening of a thing he’s been wanting to say for a long time so I don’t stop him.
“I fucked this up. And I’m just… so sorry. I don’t know why I couldn’t just get it together.”
“Because you have only a passing acquaintance with the truth and you’re allergic to fidelity?”
“Okay, ouch. True. But still. Ouch.”
I chuckle a bit, entertained at how sheepish he looks.
“It’s okay. I’m okay.”
“I never doubted for a second you’d be okay without me. I just don’t think I considered whether I’d be okay without you.”
“You have to be.”
“I do. And I am. Now. But I still kick myself for losing you.”
“I know. I really do know that. But still. I was dumb as fuck.”
The conversation turns quieter, kinder, both of us exhausted and drunk and emotional.
“You look tired,” he says to me, cupping my face in his hand. Instinctually I turn into his palm.
“I am tired.”
“Like you need sleep or like you need rest?”
“That’s an excellent question.”
He puts a pillow in his lap and lays my head gently on it. He carefully unwinds my hair from its tie, spreading out it’s length and begins kneading strong fingers into my scalp. He slides one hand forward and underneath my jaw.
“Stop clenching your teeth.”
I’d forgotten he was with me when I’d found out I was grinding my teeth at night, and remember all the jokes about mouth guards and head gear. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help but think to myself what a waste it all was. To have had the only partner who bothered to learn me as intently as I tend to learn the ones I love and to still fuck it up anyway.
We stay that way awhile- talking in hushed tones, his fingers in my hair- until we both fall asleep.
I wake up when it’s still gray out. At some point he’s draped a blanket over me and fallen asleep with his hand on my back. I sit up and watch him sleep for awhile, and I remember the countless times I’d done it before. Sometimes furious at him, sometimes knowing this was the only time I could look at him with my face fully blooming with how I felt about him. Sometimes just wondering what he was hiding.
I find the hotel stationary and scribble him a simple note; Thank you. I fold it and leave it on the table in front of him so it’ll be the first thing he sees when he wakes up. I pad quietly out of the room, letting the door close behind me with the softest click I can manage.
The world outside is too bright. Too loud. Too busy and congested already. It’s disorienting and uncomfortable. Such a sharp contrast to the quiet cocoon I’d just left. I let myself allow that it was nice to have a soft place to be, even if it was a lie.
I move with the tide, rushing, weaving, making my way. I disappear into the ocean of people around me and I imagine that this is how he’ll remember me. A ghost that disappeared before he was ready and when he wasn’t looking. A cautionary tale he’ll tell his boys or offer up as catnip to whatever woman will reap the benefits of my blood. I’ll be a specter he sees sometimes in the habits he can’t break but I won’t haunt his life because that’s not what I do.
I’m good at leaving people.