With the heat soaking through the ceramic to her cold fingertips, she held the hot mug of black tea firmly in her hands. In some way, the warmth calmed her nerves as she watched him focus his gaze out the window. Though they had been meeting every month since what he shared with her in April, she was nervous to see him again. Especially after their argument during the peak of summer about his message.
He turned his head and smiled faintly. While she wouldn’t have known the other side of it, his visit that included pounding down her door in July was more for the painful void felt in his bones, than the arduous hunger he had for every part of her in May.
“You’re wearing the scarf,” he said softly.
She looked down at her chest, nervously adjusting the scarf as if to cover her breasts and smiled. “Yeah, it’s one of my favorites — Redneck Riviera,” she said through a scoff.
“Redneck Riviera,” he laughed. “Dangerous, but it was worth it. You look nice.”
She nodded her head as if to hurriedly agree. “Are you alright?”
“Did I ever tell you about that trip?” he asked.
“To the shores last year?” she replied.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was thinking of you when I was down there…I read all your emails.”
She put the mug down carefully as she turned to look out the window for a quick glimpse of the world outside their own. Theirs was dark and hidden, but encompassed a warmth that she could not describe. As she watched a passerby carrying groceries, she wondered about their long walk from the Maple City Grocers. Yet just then, she could feel his gaze on her as she cleared her throat and leaned in, resting her elbows on the table. As she returned his stare, she tilted her head as if to better understand him, like a piece of art.
“Did I ever show you the photo strip from the booth?” he asked.
She nodded her head. “Not all four of them, no.”
“I was looking at it the other day and you know what I noticed? After she kissed me, in the next two photos it’s like, subconsciously I move away from her — can you believe that?” he said almost confusedly. “My mouth doesn’t even move in any photo, like as if I’m just not comfortable with her. I am not even smiling the way she is.”
“And—and I think it goes back to what you told me in June. That whole psychology talk about how you think I am so self-unaware and I harbor this secret insecurity with a fussy nature. I’m a pragmatist as you said.”
She narrowed her eyes with perplexity. “Oh, so now you listen to me?”
He sighed and looked at her, almost irritated. “Do you not want to be here?”
“There you go again,” she said softly leaning back in the booth. She frowned as she picked up her purse beside her, as if to leave.
Suddenly, he leaned over the table and grabbed her wrist tightly. “Don’t go — please. Not now, okay? I’m sorry.”
She pulled her wrist away from him as she folded her arms across her chest. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to see you,” he said. “You come up here more often now with your dad and work, and I just wanted to see you.”
She could feel the tears well up in her eyes as she cleared her throat. Grabbing her mug of tea, she took a few sips, feeling him watching her carefully.
“No milk anymore, huh?” he asked.
“No, it messes up my congestion,” she said, sniffing.
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s not fun. Are you alright?”
She smiled faintly as she looked at him. “Surviving. What about you? Big changes. New titles.”
“Nothing fits,” he said.
“What does that mean?” she asked, fixating her tearful, watery eyes on him.
“I can’t be myself,” he said.
“Do you mean as a —”
“No, I feel like that’s the only role that fits me most — it’s fresh and new every day, just like you said it would be, you know?”
“Well, what is it then?” she asked.
He took a deep breath and with his elbows resting on the table, placed his chin on his fisted hands. “It’s like those photos in the booth of her and me — I think back to it and realize I was thinking about you the whole time because you creep in at the weirdest times of day, and when you see the two of us in that photo, like really look at it from the first photo to the last photo where it’s just me with these, narrow eyes and her with her mouth wide open like — we’re opposite.”
“Because her mouth is open?” she asked.
“You know what I mean, right?” he said pained.
She looked at him with a frown and knew exactly what he meant, but confirming his feelings aloud would mean another night of her feeling tormented. And while she believed he was opening up for quite some time during their evenings together in the spring, she suddenly felt like he was descending into his hermit-like behavior again.
Just then the waitress walked over and smiled at the two as she held a pot of coffee. “Anything else you two want? More tea, hun?”
She nodded her head, “No thank you — I’m good here, actually.”
“What about you? It’s on the house,” the waitress said with a wink as she looked at his uniform.
“No, thank you,” he smiled as he took a deep breath.
The waitress walked off as they remained seated in their booth, alone from the rest of the world.
“Why don’t you just say something to her or your family,” she said. “Aren’t you tired of this?”
He scoffed while looking at his clenched fists resting on the table. “Oh, they know stuff but it’s different now. All of it is different, but I know you get it — you’re the only one that does, but, look the months have been rough…”
“What aren’t you telling me?” she asked. “We have been talking way more frequently, you apparently want my advice about like, a lot of things but I do not understand anything anymore. Like, how is this alright — you and me, here?”
“It’s not. I mean, I can’t —” he said. “Look you have to trust me…”
With a frustrated sigh, she curled her elbows in front of her on the table as if to pocket her head in them. She could feel his gentle hand on the top of her head, stroking her hair. Pulling her hand out from under her, she held his hand and sat up straight.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I’m worried,” she said.
“Do you remember the photos we took?” he asked.
“Which ones?” she smirked. “Do you mean her Chicago weekend?”
He smiled and let out a light chuckle. “Not those ones — I meant, when we were in the hotel.”
“We did a lot of things in hotels and took photos of it, let’s be real right now.”
Looking at her straight, he sat still watching her as a smirk glazed over his expression. “I could take you to my car right now, we could park it out in the woods.”
Her eyes widened as she laughed and looked away from him. “No, I don’t think so, pal.”
As a couple walked by and smiled at him, he nodded his head and continued looking at her straight ahead.
“Do you like facing the door all the time?” she asked.
“Do I do that?” he asked tilting his head. “I never noticed.”
“Every time we meet up, you’re facing the entrance door — is that like, a thing you guys do?”
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled at her.
“Why didn’t you want to meet at my place instead?” she asked shyly. “I don’t mean like that, I just meant, are you nervous about being out and someone seeing you?”
“No one says anything when I look like this,” he said. “It always looks like business, I guess.”
She nodded her head and folded her arms in front of her. “Why did you bring up the photos?”
“I just saw them again and it made me think of you,” he said.
“Photos of you and her on a romantic trip made you think of me and you — that doesn’t make any sense here,” she said.
“It wasn’t romantic at all and it does if you know what it’s like at home,” he said. “It’s like, again, house and not home. We have all the stuff up, but it’s not home — the couch is there but fuck that.”
“The grey one?” she asked.
She laughed. “Oh my God, that couch has seen it all.”
“I won’t forget that night,” he smiled.
“Oh, shut up. You should get rid of it,” she said through a laugh. “That is dirty.”
“We can’t, it’s already in place — right when you enter the house, it’s the first ugly thing you see. It’s like, parallel to the staircase. Great natural light, but still an ugly room.”
As she grabbed her mug in a subconscious effort to clear her throat, she began swirling her mug around before drinking the last sip. “Do you like it?”
“What’s to like about it?” he asked.
He nodded his head. “I’m always going to feel the same way I felt in that booth — claustrophobic, I suppose. Like she tries really hard and we have more reasons to now, but I don’t feel it enough to try that hard.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I guess my priorities have changed now and I’d rather just — you know — did I tell you about the bed-thing?”
“Her after-Christmas family shit? Yeah, that was weird. You wrote me a long email about ‘character’ and how she basically sucks as a human being, so I totally remember that.”
“I don’t want that type of person in my life,” he said.
“Don’t say that, you can’t say that.”
“What time is it?” he asked as he leaned over to pull on her wrist to see her watch. “I got to go. Walk me to my car?”
“Well, I have some work to finish, so I’ll pull out my laptop and get to it — it’s due in a bit.”
“Might head for a walk around the park, see my dad.”
He nodded his head as he got out of the booth and straightened his belt. A part of him wasn’t sure if she was giving him an excuse, but his insecure paranoia crept in. Without looking at her, he uttered her name very softly and asked, “Are you mad at me?”
“Never,” she said firmly.
He smiled weakly with a slight wave of hand. “Okay, well I’ll see you later then.”
As he began walking down the diner’s aisle, he nodded with a smile at an elderly couple who seemed amazed by his presence. What was there not be amazed by. He was tall, defiant and every ounce of him was beautiful to her as she watched him. Just then she sprung up from the table and ran for the door.
“Be right back,” she muttered as she zoomed by the waitress.
Pushing the front door wide open and walking out onto the sidewalk, she called his name. Hurrying over to him, she leaped up with her small petite frame and hugged him. Their eyes locked as he tilted his head and kissed her gently on the lips. She could feel her insides curl up with a tingle and realized she would never have enough. With his one hand on her back and his other smoothing over her shoulder, she could feel him kiss her harder, deeper, with a fervent urgency that she had not known before. His insistent mouth parting her shaking lips sent a tremor down her spine —
“Okay, stop…” she said as she pushed herself off of him, touching her mouth gently.
He turned to look around the street, it was empty. With his eyes glued back on hers, he apologized softly with her name gliding smoothly across his lips.
“I’ll love you, always — everything about you, I just know I will,” she said. “From the top of your head to the bottom of your Roman toes. And, your chin.”
He chucked softly as he smiled at her, taking her all in for the moment. He was not sure when he would see her again, but he dreamed about it in that instant. Suddenly his expression went wan as he sighed, turning his attention to his shoes. “You always talk about it and I remember — so I will just have to cover it up now.”
Standing in front of him with every vulnerability, she burst into tears and laughed. Nodding her head, she placed her hand gently on his face, gliding her thumb over the bottom of his smooth chin. “Okay.”